Do you know the branch of medicine that studies regrowth, repair, and replacement of damaged cells and tissues? In this episode, our guest tells us about her work in Regenerative Medicine;
Hi Shivan, I am excited to have you as our guest today. You are welcome to Words That Count
Hello Winnie, wow. I don’t know what to say or where to start. Actually, I am in awe😅. Successful scientists..wow..it is my honor to take part and help in any way. Words That Count is cool; just looked at your website. It’s amazing work that you’re all doing.
Thanks for the kind words, Shivan! And, thanks to Ameria for recommending you for this session.
Briefly introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Shivan Barungi from Uganda. Currently, I am pursuing my Ph.D. in Regenerative Medicine at the University of Jaen, in Spain. I am in my last year, probably my last.
About my Ph.D., I am working in the cardiovascular field but my thesis is more along the lines of personalized medicine as well as translational research. I am working on decellularizing a human artery and recellularizing it. This means removing all the genetic material the artery might have, leaving it as a scaffold with nothing. Then we culture and grow human cells which we extract from blood donated to us, especially from patients in the cardiovascular ward. We then try to recellularize the artery with these grown cells.
These cells are what help in the vascularization process. If this process is successful, we end up with a fully functioning artery. We are doing this to solve the problems of organ rejection and blockages after donation. Here we only need the donor’s organ and the recipient’s blood to grow new cells that will match their body’s genetics and cell type.
We had to create a bioreactor that simulates the heart function and that’s what we use for the recellularization process. So far so good but we still have some further experiments to do. If everything checks out well, we shall start clinical trials, which if successful will lead to using the same technique on other organs. That’s basically what I am doing.
Regenerative Medicine is a new term to me, and I am sure to some of our people too. Tell us how you joined this specific area of medicine
I started school at Mbarara Kindergarten, I was one of the pioneers of the school, before moving to Mbarara Preparatory for two years. We then moved to Kampala with my family, and I joined Kampala Parents where I finished my primary school. I attended Maryhill High School for my O’Level and St. Joseph’s Girls School Nsambya for my A’Level where I did Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics (PCB/M).
A year after my A’Level, I traveled to Cuba for my degree in Microbiology. While I was there, the Cuban education ministry gave us an option to pursue a new degree then, called Clinical Bioanalysis. This was a combination of five different fields which were all related to different laboratories. Initially, one could only graduate with a degree from one of the fields but there was this new, more hectic option to graduate with a “taste” of each field. I went for that and graduated with a first-class degree and was the best in the class.
After graduation, I returned home and took some time off to rest from the hectic program before embarking on another journey in Europe. I chose Europe because my peers mentioned to me that a degree from a European university would be valued more than a Cuban one. I applied to a few universities and finally got the degree I wanted, which was a master’s in biotechnology and biomedicine. After that one-year program at Jaen, I had planned to apply for a Ph.D. Fortunately, I attended a conference where one female professor spoke about a topic that sounded interesting. I approached her and talked about myself and what I wanted to do. Shockingly she liked my pitch and contacted me after a while with a Ph.D. opportunity.
We had to look for funding before starting the Ph.D., which meant holding on for some time. The same professor invited me to do a master’s with her research group during that time, instead of sitting at home with nothing. I did the degree which was in personalized medicine and translational research at the University of Granada. That was the foundation to where I am now, in Regenerative Medicine.
What are some of the challenges you have faced on your journey into Regenerative Medicine?
Starting in Cuba, it was the language – I didn’t know anything about Spanish. The good thing is that we were offered a mandatory one-year course in Spanish for everyone who came from a non-Spanish speaking background. Another challenge was being away from family. It was my first time and I was only 18 years old.
When I arrived in Spain, my parents were supporting me financially but not as much as they were when I was in Cuba. I remember having two jobs and school at one point. It was very hard but at the end of the day, I did what I had to do. For my second master’s, I was pregnant, so I had to work and study while pregnant. Luckily, I was awarded a scholarship by the Foundation of African Women Scientists for my tuition and living expenses.
For my Ph.D. as well, I didn’t manage to get funding in the first years. So I had to work alongside school. At the moment I have two jobs; one as a Data Scientist in the Oncology ward at the hospital and the other as the Editor of all the papers and articles written by the hospital. I am also an English teacher in the academy.
I know how hard it is to be an international student without a scholarship! How have you been able to keep yourself together with all this pressure?
Learning to balance has been a good strategy for such times. I have learned how to be present in all spaces, whether at work or home. It is not easy, I am still struggling with it but it works for me.
My family has been my number one support system through it all. I also have my friends and the research team to thank for their support. It would have been hard for me to be where I am without all of them
Let’s talk about some of your prestigious moments of recognition and awards along this journey in Regenerative Medicine
The very first one I can recall was during my bachelor’s degree when I was awarded “best student of the year” just before graduation. I was also awarded the “Gold Degree” because I had the highest average. It was an absolute honor to have a first-class degree, and one with the highest average in the whole faculty.
During my Ph.D. journey, I have been awarded different grants and sponsorships to help with my financial needs. All of these have been from the University of Jaen. There is this specific 3-months scholarship that’s given to students with the most promising research. I received that three times on three different occasions.
We have seen Shivan at work/school, but, who is she outside such environments?
I am a mother of two beautiful babies, one is four years old now. My family is my world, I do everything I do to make sure my babies have everything they need, just like my mother did for me. Right now I don’t have any hobbies or activities because I don’t have the time.
What is your favorite quote?
It’s by Winston Churchill and it says, “success is not final, failure is not fatal, it’s the courage to continue that counts.” So, we might have ups and downs but at the end of the day what counts is you being able to get back up and continue.
How would you encourage a young African girl who wants to join the world of Regenerative Medicine?
Speaking from experience, when I was growing up, it seemed almost impossible to have a girl pursue a STEM degree. I believe it still is to some people, especially those who don’t have access to appropriate media and information sources. My words of encouragement are, “we can do anything as long as we put our minds to it”. There are many challenges but you have to do your part and wait for the rest to fall into place. There are scholarships available to help us out, we just don’t know where to find them.
Another thing is, “let no one tell you that you can’t do anything because, say, you are a mother, you are married,…or anything like that!” You can achieve anything you want, regardless of your financial or social situation.
Thank you, Shivan, for the amazing lesson about Regenerative Medicine! I have learned something new today. Wishing you the very best with the remaining time on your Ph.D. You are doing very important research. I can’t wait to read about you in the future.