LMP alumna Andrea Conroy searches for new summits

Thursday, October 25, 2012
Photo Andrea Conroy with study team
Andrea Conroy (bottom left) enjoying a celebratory lunch with study team at the Nile Resort Hotel.

Twelve-hour rolling brown-outs, limited clean running water, lack of proper space, no freezers, and the threat of deadly Ebola outbreaks. Under normal circumstances, scientists have difficulty performing quality research. Under these circumstances, it would appear downright impossible. However, for Andrea Conroy LMP alumna, these challenges are just a part of everyday life in the “the Pearl of Africa”: the East-African country of Uganda.

Conroy’s remarkable overseas career began early during her PhD studies with LMP Professor Kevin Kain. In 2008, she took advantage of LMP’s unique combination of basic research and clinical practice and spent two months at a rural hospital in Kenya. Shortly afterward, in 2009, she conducted a five-month field trial in Malawi with the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust and the University of Malawi College of Medicine. Her transformative research revealed how biomarkers could improve the diagnosis and prognosis of cerebral and placental malaria: a dangerous disorder in pregnancy characterized by parasite accumulation in the placenta. She demonstrated that biomarkers for this disease could be readily detected in whole blood. The ultimate goal of her research is to incorporate this knowledge into an affordable hand-held rapid-test device.

Asked how her experience in Africa has changed her perspective on research, she explains, “You take a step back and assess the feasibility. Here [in Canada], we’re surrounded by really high-tech labs and state-of-the-art technology and that’s fantastic. But in Africa we don’t have those resources. You really have to figure out what is going to work and what will not.”

It’s clear that both Conroy and Professor Kain’s top priority is to conduct research with global impact. She explains, “Kevin is unique. He’s really innovative, energetic and passionate about what he does so it’s a very exciting environment to work in.” She adds, “A lot of researchers will stop and say ‘somebody should look into this’ but he actually follows through.” This relentless passion extends to Professor Kain’s team, “When I come back from abroad, the next morning I want to go to work. Not only to continue with my research but some of my best friends are there. We’re really collaborative in terms of working with each other.”

Since completing her PhD in 2011, Conroy has pursued post-doctoral studies with the University of Toronto’s Institute of Medical Science (IMS) under the supervision of Professors Kain and Rupert Kaul. She is currently working with Makerere University as a field trial manager in Jinja, Uganda. The trial is testing the use of inhaled nitric oxide to improve the clinical outcome of Ugandan children with severe malaria.

The challenges of working in Uganda have been numerous. On the first day she and the team arrived they discovered that their previously allocated space at the Jinja Regional Referral Hospital was no longer available. Within one month, they created an intensive-care ward and continued the trial on schedule. Beyond larger administrative issues, the team also faces the daily challenges of conducting effective research. Without access to proper freezers they must ship their samples on a daily basis 80 kilometres away to Kampala, the capital city of Uganda.

Amidst these challenging situations, Conroy draws inspiration from the effects of her research, “It always feels really hands-on every day and that your research really has an impact. You’re able to connect with children who are dying from a disease and so I think that’s really important.”

If that weren’t enough, Conroy avidly pursues mountain climbing in Uganda. To date, she has summited Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Rwenzori Mountains: where she crossed two glaciers over an eight-day trek.

Her next professional endeavor is a field trial in Malawi studying HIV development in pregnancy and its interaction with malaria. Her next personal goal is to climb Uganda’s legendary Mount Elgon. When asked how she deals with so many challenges, she smiles and says, “I love challenges. I thrive under pressure so it’s an ideal environment.” It’s clear that for this outstanding young researcher, no mountain is too high.