My Experience as an RSIF PhD Scholar at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology by Waema Maxwell Wambua

Pauline Achoka
14 Sep 2020 0

When I received the official invitation for PhD sandwich placement at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), I was not sure what to expect. After arriving in KIST, I quickly settled in a dormitory which is a few meters from the laboratories. The room is well furnished, well maintained and very comfortable with amazing views out on to the greenery by a forest. The common kitchen and laundry area are all of adequate size for the dormitory occupants.

Life in Seoul is very different from what I have experienced before as the culture is unfamiliar. It was a big challenge at first as I experienced culture shock during my first month here! However, I also enjoy adventures and the unknown, so I loved the new experience of a different culture, academic system, meeting new people from all over the world, eating a different cuisine- Kimchi, Bibimbab, Samgyetang, Mandusgug (the language remains a struggle but I am learning!). Interestingly, Koreans have stereotypes about foreigners just as much as we have stereotypes about them.

My PhD research is on the development of point of care diagnostic tests for infectious diseases. I am working on simultaneous detection of respiratory viruses using a controlled release system of thermos-responsive hydrogel microparticles based multiplex real time RT qPCR platform. My hypothesis is driven by the fact that despite lessons learned and progress made from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak and the current coronavirus pandemic that causes COVID-19, the influx of respiratory viral infections are showing similar symptoms to other existing diseases, making it difficult to diagnose symptomatically. Confirmation and repeated diagnosis cause a lot of social anxiety. Therefore, what is needed are rapid and precise multi-diagnostic methods for various infectious diseases with similar symptoms. Such knowledge will play an important role in helping Africa respond to future epidemics and pandemics.

The gold standard method for RNA detection is Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) whereby the mild temperature of RT often causes unexpected binding between primers and random genes. This one-step RT-qPCR leads to a very low multiplicity. This limitation calls for diagnostic technology that controls the release of PCR elements by storing PCR primers inside thermo-responsive polymer capsules, separating them from the RT reaction to prevent adverse side reactions. So far, I have fabricated thermo- responsive primers immobilized networks by encapsulating the PCR primers into low melting point agarose nano-capsules and then introduced them into hydrogel microparticles immobilized with RT primers. I am comparing the efficiency of the qPCR conventional assay with this newly developed tPIN assay.

I have found KIST an ideal place to undertake my research. KIST enjoys a global reputation for its high-quality and modern scientific research including in the biology sciences. Specifically, their robust academic atmosphere and state of the art lab facilities are excellent. With all these, KIST stands to fulfill my aspiration to become a scientist with important achievements in the future.

As a PhD scholar, I have learned the need to set goals and work to achieve them. I am working to finish my PhD on time and fully cooperate with my supervisors to make this a reality.
I am pleased to be in Korea. The Korean people are very helpful to those who do not speak their local language. Several times when I was lost in Seoul, the people especially the young who understand English would come up to me offering to help. Even though there is a language barrier, my experience is that South Korean people will do their best to help you in any way that they can. However, most of the people within KIST are fluent in English, and certainly within the laboratory where I work. Generally, my experience has been great so far and I recommend Korea to anyone wishing to travel there for work or leisure. You will enjoy its wonderful people, places and environment.