Nithal Kuwa received a Fulbright grant which took take her to Zambia. Her research could eventually have a profound effect on the medical treatment of the more than 1.8 million children in sub-Saharan Africa who are living with HIV and AIDS. Kuwa has spent the last three years conducting research in virology in the lab of Charles Wood, professor in the school of biological sciences and director of the Nebraska Center for Virology.
Nithal Kuwa, a graduate student in biological sciences, received a Fulbright grant which took her to Zambia.
Her research could eventually have a profound effect on the medical treatment of the more than 1.8 million children in sub-Saharan Africa who are living with HIV and AIDS.
Kuwa has spent the last three years conducting research in virology in the lab of Charles Wood, professor in the school of biological sciences and director of the Nebraska Center for Virology.
Kuwa traded one laboratory for another as she undertook her Fulbright research in Wood's lab in Zambia. She spent her time studying HIV drug resistance in children, and volunteering at a Voluntary Counseling and Testing Center.
"What I am doing will be important for the development of better drug regimens for children," Kuwa said. "I am looking at children going through drug failure to see if this drug failure is due to the occurrence of drug resistant viruses and, if so, did these viruses emerge because of prophylactic therapy they received earlier during their childhood? If I find that the kids who got prophylactics have higher chances of developing drug resistance, then doctors can use that information to change their medication regimens."
Kuwa's time in Zambia represents a logical follow-up to her work in Wood's lab at UNL. Wood oversees epidemiological studies on HIV and Human Herpesvirus 8, focusing on transmission of these viruses and the roles they play in immunosuppression and cancer development. Kuwa's thesis research explored the body's immune response to Human Herpesvirus 8.
Key to understanding Kuwa's academic and career goals is to glimpse back at her childhood. Born in Sudan at the beginning of its civil war, she spent much of her youth living as a refugee in Ethiopia and Kenya, separated for years at a time from her father, a highly regarded leader of the southern Sudanese rebellion.
Supported by the United Nations, Kuwa and her siblings attended school in Kenya, and her father visited the family whenever he could. In 2000, Kuwa, her mother and her siblings were granted asylum in the United States.
"Lincoln wasn't a choice, it was picked for us," she said. "I had never heard of Nebraska before. Our only concept of America came from TV, so we had seen New York or L.A., or other cities with high-rise buildings. When we got here we thought, 'It's like we're in a village.' And not too long after we arrived, it started snowing. That was the first snow we'd ever seen."
A few months after her arrival in Lincoln, Kuwa's father died from prostate cancer. His death was a devastating loss not only for his family, but for the country of Sudan.
At the same time, Kuwa was acclimating to culture shock at Lincoln High, which was different from her Kenyan school in countless ways. Still, she loved her teachers and classes, and excelled academically. She graduated in 2002.
Although she knew for years that she wanted to pursue a medical career, Kuwa's graduate emphasis on epidemiology was, initially, unplanned. As an undergraduate, she majored in biopsychology at Nebraska Wesleyan University. The summer after her freshman year, she volunteered at a hospital in Sudan, and saw firsthand the abysmal state of medical care in that country. Although she had often dreamed of being a doctor, she realized that by pursuing a graduate degree in public health, she could help "fix the whole system."
A couple years later, she toured UNL's Beadle Center, and met Wood for the first time. That summer she worked in his lab as a McNair Scholar, and Wood then invited her back for her senior year. As her college graduation approached, he encouraged her to pursue a master's degree at UNL.
She'll assess the long-term health of children born to women with HIV, many of whom were given prophylactic drugs as infants in an attempt to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus. This process, she said, confers a high level of drug resistance upon the kids. Kuwa wants to learn if children who took these drugs develop resistance to medical treatment if they are treated for HIV later in their lives.
"It'll be very heartbreaking work at the counseling center, actually seeing the people who are infected with this virus," she said. "But then again, what I'm doing brings hope for the future. I hope that my being there and seeing their faces will give me motivation to put even more into my work. Hopefully in the future I'll make a difference in someone's life."
Following her stay in Zambia, Kuwa hopes to live in a French-speaking country to hone her French language skills, and then plans to pursue her doctorate in public health. Longer term, she would like to work for the Centers for Disease Control and live and travel throughout Africa. Eventually, she will return to Sudan.
"Because my dad was so involved with political issues in Sudan, I feel there is almost an obligation for us to go back," she said. "His death strengthened my desire to work harder in life and give back to Sudan someday. I think this Fulbright is a step toward that."