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Infections and Immunoepidemiology Branch Staff Spotlights

Black Bag NCI Special Report/ Journal of Minority Medical Students Interview with Dr. Sam Mbulaiteye

Photo of Dr. Sam Mbulaiteye

I know you're an MD; what got you interested in research?

Dr. Mbulaiteye: I got interested in becoming a doctor because I wanted to treat and cure people with disease. I had experienced the healing power of doctors as a young boy when I put sap -- acidic juice from plants -- into my eyes while playing. The sap caused extreme pain and a loss of sight, but the doctor who treated me restored my sight. Once I became a doctor, I realized that one needed to study diseases to understand what caused them, why they developed in some and not in others, and why treatment outcomes differed in patients with apparently similar profiles.

Can you give an example of how a mentor helped you in your path to becoming a researcher?

Dr. Mbulaiteye: My mentors in Uganda advised me to complete medical residency in Uganda; to seek epidemiological training in the UK, which I did at Cambridge University; and to obtain solid research experience conducting case-control and cohort studies in Uganda. After obtaining great field experience, my mentors advised me to apply to the NCI to obtain first-world research experience and to get hands-on involvement in cutting-edge research. Here at NCI, my mentors have continued to give me wonderful support and encouragement, which has allowed me to further my career.

What research are you currently working on and what excites you most about it right now?

Dr. Mbulaiteye: My research is on Burkitt lymphoma, a rare cancer in the West, but endemic in Africa. The tumor is, for unexplained reasons, more common in males than females, and, in Africa, it often erupts on the face in children younger than five years and in the abdominal organs (e.g., kidney, liver, ovaries) in older children. Burkitt lymphoma is linked to Epstein-Barr virus, which was first isolated from Burkitt lymphoma tumor cells and the first human virus to be associated with human cancer, and to recurrent infection with Plasmodium falciparum, a cause of malaria, with the evidence being stronger for the latter than the former. I am conducting an exciting study to investigate the role of malaria in Burkitt lymphoma. My study will measure malaria indirectly by testing cases and controls for genes that protect individuals from getting severe malaria infection. This approach is exciting because genetic variation can be measured accurately and it does not change when people develop disease. Using this novel approach, it will be possible to test the hypothesis whether children who possess malaria-resistance genes are protected from developing Burkitt lymphoma.

How has your experience with NCI helped you in your pursuit of a research career?

Dr. Mbulaiteye: NCI has the best facilities and the largest concentration of researchers in the world with singular focus on cancer research. The environment, rich with opportunities to interact with basic-science, clinical, and epidemiological researchers, has been incredibly supportive in my growth from a research trainee to an independent researcher. I am now pursuing an independent research program, conducting studies that I have proposed and designed and that will allow me to make a significant contribution in the field of cancer.

What do you think minority researchers can bring to the research table?

Dr. Mbulaiteye: Minority researchers bring talent, perspective, and diversity to the table. Because of who they are, they intrinsically highlight opportunities for research, training, and intervention for conditions that may affect them disproportionately.

What advice would you give to a minority med student or other minority science-oriented student if they are considering a career in research?

Dr. Mbulaiteye: Go for it. NCI is an especially great place for minorities to come for training. The exposure with investigators from diverse disciplines, interests, opinions, and countries is unsurpassed.