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Professor Alfred Orina Isaac is a Pharmaceutical Scientist with a specific interest in Neuroscience. His research is focused on neurotoxicology and neuroprotection mechanisms in the brain. Currently, he is studying the neurotoxicity of Khat in a mouse model; and also the neuroprotection capability of naturally found compounds against neurotoxic drugs e.g. Melarsoprol. His long term goal is to start the first institute for brain research in Kenya.
Author of the book “Scientific Writing for Students and Young Scientists”
My name is Professor Orina Isaac, I’m a professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Technology at Technical University of Kenya since 2012. My area of research is pharmaceutical sciences with a special interest in neurotoxology and neuroprotection mechanisms.
My interest in education was born out of the need to, mostly during that period, the only way in Kenya to succeed was to get an education. My mom learned up to standard 3. She knew how to read and write Kisi language and Swahili, she couldn’t read English. My father did up to standard 7. During that period that was a significant amount of education, but then he was unable to proceed to high school because my grandfather could not afford the money to pay for him to go to high school. That was 300 Kenya shillings at the time. Right now it’s equal to three euros or three dollars. My grandfather was unable to raise that, so my father never proceeded beyond standard 7.
My father’s lifelong mission was to ensure that we, his children, would get education. Also, my grandfather who was completely uneducated was what you might call a village neurosurgeon. Whenever people had traumatic brain injuries due to fights or accidents, he’d open their heads all the way to their brain and remove pieces of metal, whatever things were there, bones, and reconstruct them and they’d live. Interestingly, some individuals were unable to get medical attention from conventional hospitals but were operated by him and they’re still alive up to today.
That got me interested in sciences, learning sciences. Particularly when I got the chance to do a PhD in a university that had the necessary infrastructure, I decided to lean towards neuroscience. I was very intrigued by what my grandfather used to do. That is how I ended up studying an area that deals with the neuronal regeneration and intergenomic communication in neuronal cell lines. I wanted to do research in this area and maybe contribute to a certain understanding.
I’ll just tell you that you’d be shocked that he used to operate people under a tree. Some of the operations were major. Sometimes you just remove the entire skull and put it on the side like this. If those are injured because of the accident, you go in and remove the cracked bones or whatever and put the skin back. There was never an infection. That is amazing. An operation that’s done under a tree. But then there were some herbs that he used after the operation that he applied to the patient and none of them died from any kind of septicemia or infection post-surgery.
I did my PhD at Idaho State University in the state of Idaho in the northern part of the US. At the time that I got a scholarship to go to Idaho to study I was working at Egerton University in Kenya as an assistant lecturer. I really wanted to study elsewhere so that I could get an experience, various experiences from different parts of the world; that was my motivation for seeking an opportunity in the US for studies. I strongly believe that for academic life it is always good for a student to study at various universities. I don’t believe in studying in one university. So I was very keen, right from after getting my masters that I would do my PhD outside Kenya. And in that regard, I did a lot of applications. until I got an opportunity at Idaho State university.
My experience there was very, very good. Some of the networks that I built while I was there, I use them up to now in my collaborations and partnerships in various projects that we have done since I graduated with a PhD in 2007. I was studying mitochondrial DNA damage in neuronal cells and particularly I was looking at how mitochondrial DNA damage interferes with signalling within a cell.
There are some challenges or diseases that affect human beings where mitochondrial DNA is usually damaged. Some of the drugs actually interfere with the mitochondrial DNA to an extent that there is a lot of mitochondrial DNA damage – in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other dementias. So it is very important to understand how does the cell adjust itself, how does it function once the mitochondrial DNA is affected. If you can understand that mechanisms you might be able to develop targets or better ways of controlling damage that occurs in those processes.
I went for a postdoc in Cleveland at Case Western Reserve University Medical Center. I really wanted to do more neuroscience, so I did a postdoc in neuroscience at the Case Western because I wanted to specialise in this area of research. That is the background of my focus of research up to now.
My current research that my PhD students are working on is that we want to understand what happens to the brain when you’re persistently exposed to Khat. In Kenya we call it the Miraa, in other countries it’s called Khat. It’s a herb that’s commonly chewed by Africans, in Europe and other places. We’re looking at the potential long-term impact of Khat chewing on the brain ageing process.
Maybe an advice to PhD or Masters students which I learned from one of the professors at Idaho State University, his name is Adeboye Adejare from Nigeria. One time he told me that in PD research it is like a war. You have to fight it and win it. Other things that I learned are that you have to really work hard on it, be really focused, other dynamics like choice of a mentor are also important, choice of a research topic is very important. You might choose a topic that might take you 15 years to finish and no-one wants to do a PhD for 15 years. Almost all my classmates were crying at some point. And the reason is the stresses that come with it. Some of them had issues with the people they were working with, their mentors or their supervisors. As long as you get the right people to work with together with the right equipment, research materials and partnerships to execute the project the rest remains with the student, there is no shortcut. So careful choice of a mentor is very important. You have a lifelong partnership after the PhD. Sometimes your ability to attract funding for your own research can be determined by the person you have worked with. Sometimes you use them as references, and some of the funding organisations share your proposal with that person to see what would be their take on what you are doing currently.
The advantages of doing a research in a country outside yours there are always both advantages and disadvantages, especially for someone coming from Kenya or Africa I think it’s always good to go out in order to access the best facilities, the best equipment, and also as I said before create lifelong collaborations and partnerships that will help you later in your career. So I am a great supporter of students seeking those opportunities outside their country so that they can get this dynamic view of research across the globe. They become more enriched and versatile scientists with that kind of exposure.
I’d like to say thanks very much for the opportunity to do this podcast. I hope that my experiences that I’ve shared with you will be useful to other people who are going to be in the same situation as I’ve been as a graduate student and also as a scientist. Thank you very much!