Daphne Jackson Fellow, Dr Nzuma-Mswaka – end of year one report

1 Oct 2014

Campylobacter, especially Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni), poses problems in food safety systems in the UK. It is a leading cause of foodborne illness and is three times more common than salmonellosis and yet until recently awareness among the UK public was poor. The risk of contracting campylobacteriosis is increased by mishandling raw poultry, consuming undercooked meat, raw milk or untreated water.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) reported in 2013 that Campylobacter was responsible for almost half of the ~ 1 million cases of foodborne illnesses in the UK each year, resulting in 22,000 hospitalizations and 110 deaths; contributing a staggering £900 million per year from a total ~ £1.5 billion for all foodborne implications. Tackling Campylobacter levels in the food chain and reducing human Campylobacter cases remains a priority for the UK government, together with the development of better detection methods for Campylobacter to ensure safe food and also quick diagnosis for patients presenting with diarrhoea. Current culture diagnostic methods are time-consuming and laborious. Existing antibody-based methods require animal-derived antibodies which are difficult and expensive to produce.

Dr Ruramayi Nzuma-Mswaka has been appointed as a Daphne Jackson Fellow, sponsored by SCI, to tackle this issue, and is working towards developing a simple, faster, cheaper, specific and sensitive test to detect low levels of C. jejuni.  Dr Nzuma-Mswaka is based in the School of Biological Sciences at Queen's University, Belfast under the supervision of Dr Irene Grant.

Alongside the valuable research work taking place, one of the key objectives of the Daphne Jackson Fellowship is to support Fellows to undertake research and retraining to increase their employability.  Since starting the Daphne Jackson Fellowship in July 2013, Dr Nzuma-Mswaka has received approximately 220 hours of laboratory based training including Health and Safety, writing COSHH/Risk Assessments and training in operation of general and specialist laboratory equipment.

To gain more insight and understanding of the challenges faced by poultry farmers in trying to control Campylobacter levels both on-farm and in poultry products, as well as steps being taken by the FSA in order to raise public awareness of this pathogen and the guidance they are offering on handling and preparing poultry products, Dr Nzuma-Mswaka attended The Safefood Campylobacter Knowledge Networks Annual Conference 2014 in Ireland.  This also gave her the opportunity to meet scientists investigating different strategies of reducing Campylobacter levels in the UK.

Dr Nzuma-Mswaka is supported on her journey back to a research career at Queen's University by her supervisor, Dr Irene Grant, and her colleague Dr Linda Stewart.  She has received additional guidance, training, and added valuable skills to her portfolio thanks to the involvement of Dr Fuquan Liu,School of Biological Sciences, Queen's University, and Dr Terence Fodey, Veterinary Science Division, Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Stormont.  As an SCI member, Dr Nzuma-Mswaka has also forged links with SCI's Food Group, allowing her to present her work to other members and to meet others with similar professional interests through Food Group activities and other SCI events.

In reference to being awarded an SCI funded Daphne Jackson Fellowship, Dr Nzuma-Mswaka said:

'The moment that funding for my fellowship was awarded, joy soon turned into apprehension as I wondered how I was going to progress and get results from a life science research project working only part-time. However I soon realised that the flexibility that comes with the fellowship meant that I could tailor my time to suit and I have now eased into a routine that has allowed me to be in the lab 5 hours a day from Monday to Friday (occasionally staying longer where necessary) while combining with picking my children from school every afternoon.

As I conclude my first year, I realise how much I have learnt and achieved in such limited time which has also boosted my confidence and belief in myself that 'I can'. This couldn't have been without the support of all around me. I have immensely benefited from having a supervisor (Dr Irene Grant) who sets high standards for herself and transmits this work ethic through to her group. I have also been privileged to have Dr Fuquan Liu on board to share his vast knowledge, expertise and support in the molecular biology techniques I am working on.

I am very grateful to the Daphne Jackson Trust and to my sponsor, SCI, for affording me the opportunity to reinvigorate my passion for science while performing cutting-edge research in my field.'

In the final year of her fellowship Dr Nzuma-Mswaka looks forward to the opportunity to present her work at the Queens University Symposium for Research Staff, and at The Safefood Campylobacter Knowledge Networks Annual Conference 2015.   She also hopes to present her achievements at the SCI Food for Thought event 2015.

With positive progress in her research so far, combined with the prospect of collaborative research with another research group within Queen's School of Biological Sciences Dr Nzuma-Mswaka is hopeful that she will be able to write at least two scientific papers for publication in peer reviewed journals.

We are looking forward to finding out how Dr Nzuma-Mswaka gets on and will be sure to bring you further details, and hopefully the results of her work, in 2015.

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