Ellen Ledwaba - A Research Career founded at UVA and Univen

Ellen with mentors and colleagues at the MR-6 Research Building.

Ellen Ledwaba, PhD, is launching a promising research career to address critical global issues, particularly relevant in surrounding communities of Venda, South Africa. Her collaborative training under the Global Infectious Diseases Research Training Program (funded by National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center) supported by the partnership between the University of Virginia (UVA) and the University of Venda (Univen) deeply informs her work and perspective.    

Question: What is your research about and what impact do you hope that it will have?  

Answer: The research project was inspired from the previous project I did during my MSc degree in Microbiology (infectious disease). The research was focused on detecting diarrheal causing pathogens in children under the age of 5 years in clinics located in the rural communities of Venda, South Africa. During the analysis of the results, I noticed a pattern of infection with the diarrheal causing pathogens, in which most of the children were infected with more than one pathogen at the same time (co-infection), and that caught my attention and was warranted further investigations. I was very fascinated by these results and I felt the need to further my PhD studies in order to learn more about the interaction of diarrheal co-infections and also study about the disease outcome as a result of infection in an infected host/patient.

My training at  UNIVEN included molecular training, field work (data and specimen collection in clinical settings), identification of bacterial species using biochemical tests and interpretation of results. When I went to UVA, my skills and knowledge were empowered with more training including research ethics, manuscript preparation techniques, working with animal models, tissue cultures and immunofluorescence microscopy. The training that I received at UVA really shaped my work and turned my ideas into reality. Through my UVA advisors/mentors (I truly appreciate) I received extensive training and got introduced to a whole new different field (of animal models and tissue cultures) which allowed me to dive in deeper into learning more about the disease models and outcome of infection by learning the pathogenesis mechanisms of my pathogens of interest. This enabled me to study interaction of diarrheal pathogens (diarrheagenic Escherichia coli pathotypes) and in the process I had the opportunity to develop an Enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC) infection animal model which highlighted outcomes of diarrhea, growth decrements as observed in children, and also inflammatory biomarkers which are similar to humans.

The impact of the work is the fact that this study will be the first to highlight EPEC infection causing diarrhea in a murine model and also the first study to analyze the interaction between diarrheagenic E. coli pathotypes EPEC+ETEC (leading to severe disease outcome using an animal model) and EAEC+EPEC (leading to diminished disease outcome using an animal model and tissue culture). My PhD project raised important aspects that can be related to clinical studies by showing the severity of disease outcome when a patient  is infected with just one pathogen versus when they are infected with two or more pathogens at the same time. These findings contribute enormously to the body of knowledge and will assist future studies in overcoming disease burden by developing therapeutic interventions.

Question: How did your experience in the GIDRT program shape your research and goals?

Answer: It has been an interesting journey given that my UVA mentors, Dr.’s Guerrant and Nataro, who are experts in this field with enormous contributions they have made to the body of knowledge. During my research projects, they were the people that I look up  to in my research field and having to work and interact with them on a daily basis made my dreams as an upcoming young researcher look more promising. The support and mentorship from Prof Potgieter and Prof Traoré from UNIVEN were also crucial and made my research to go well with a flow. The monthly meetings that we had with the GIDRT committee from UVA and UNIVEN also played a crucial role in shaping my research to be what it is today.

Almost everything at UVA seems to be fast-paced, the reagents and everything that I needed in the lab were always available and that played an important role in making sure that my work kept flowing and bringing out results all the time. I had to make sure that by the end of each week there was progress in my work and always had to communicate with  both UVA and UNIVEN mentors on a weekly basis, reporting my progress during the lab meetings.

The most surprising thing that happened to me was my UVA advisors/mentors. When I arrived at UVA I thought I was only going to be under Dr. Nataro, only to find out that Dr. Guerrant was also going to be my mentor. This was actually a blessing because these are people that I used to cite a lot in my work, and now I had the opportunity to work under both of them. So, what made the experience to be more fascinating was the fact that both the labs complemented each other and everyone working in their labs were very supportive and that made it easy for my project to turn out well. Another surprising thing, both my UVA mentors took their time to invest and groom me, as there was a time I had to go back to South Africa because it was the end of my GIDRT funding period. Interestingly, both my UVA mentors reserved funds from their grants so that I could use them to return back to UVA and finish my project.

Coming to UVA, the many conferences, meetings and workshops that I attended helped me to gain my confidence by talking about my research work and have the courage to interact with my peers and other advisors from different background. During my stay at UVA, also learnt a lot about working in a team, in the lab when someone had a project, we would assist each other when needed and that made the work to flow easily and through the process we managed to produce high impact manuscripts contributing to the field of knowledge.

Question: What were you thinking when you first arrived at UVA in the middle of winter?

Answer: When we left South Africa, it was the begining of autumn and the temperature was about 29 degrees Celsius and I don’t think anything could have prepared us for what we were going to experience when we arrived at UVA, because winter for us is about 10 degree Celsius when its cold. I was really looking forward to the snow because it was going to be my first time, unfortunately, when we got there the snow had just melted and we missed it, but the cold was on a different level because I never experienced -5 degree Celsius. I got the opportunity to experience the snow  for the first time in December. Even though it was extremely cold I did manage to play a little in the snow.

Question: What are your best memories of your time at UVA? In the lab, in the CGHE Fellows apartment, and in Charlottesville?

Answer: At the apartment it was all fun, at the end of the day we would sit together and have supper while each one of us talk about the different experiences we had during the day and would get advice from each other. The thing that I loved the most is when one of us had a presentation we would all meet-up in the living room while one presents their work and we would assist each other to make sure that the work comes out well. On weekends we would go to Fashion square mall to do some shopping and unwind eating our favorite meals.

One of the memories that I also hold dearly to my heart is when CGH organized a trip for us to go to Washington DC. We really enjoyed ourselves as we got to see places such as the White house, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Smithsonian zoological park and world war II memorial.

April (I love to call her my aunt) she always came through for us whenever we needed help with anything outside work. She made sure that we adapted to the new environment and she would surprise us with dinner, give us gifts and invite us to events set up by CGHE and that allowed us to be aware of different things that were happening on grounds.

Dr Dillingham was more like a mother to us. She used to invite us to her place and we would have a great time with her children and we used to play games in the backyard. She would also invite us to events organized by CGHE so that we would interact with other scholars that came from different parts of the world, and the conversations that we had during the time were very uplifting because it helped us adapt to the new environment that we were in.

I would consider Charlottesville as my second home because the friends that I had made me feel like I was part of their family. My lab colleagues were more than just colleagues because after work we used to hang out and enjoy each other’s company, we used to go out to the movies, go to restaurants, farmers market, Charlottesville Escape room was our favorite and we would go on road trips. We went to places like Blue mountain, Potomac Mills, Carter’s mountain and Monticello trail.

In the lab, we had a roster where one would choose their favorite restaurant and we would all go there to have lunch as a group. Sometimes our mentors would take us out for lunch or dinner once in a while or they would invite the lab to their place of residence and we would have fun games as a lab.

Question: What is it like being trained at Univen and UVA? What is most important about the institutional collaboration? The experiences and the ethics acquired during your training will sustain and impact you for the rest of your career. Each institutional has a unique ethos; what is the most important or useful thing you learned from each institution? How do the universities complement each other?

Answer: The training that I received from UVA played a crucial role in shaping my research because I now have experience in working with animal models and tissue cultures. This field is very broad as the  research plays an important role in understanding the pathogenesis mechanism of pathogens, vaccine development and in clinical trial studies. Therefore, coming out as a PhD it will enable me to be involved in different fields of research that will complement my background. I also learnt how to be independent and be involved in team-building during the process. I now also have experience in writing manuscripts and through the process I learnt the importance of collaboration because we also partnered with Dr Swann from Imperial college in UK to assist with my work.

Both institutions are all about producing good quality research and the collaboration between institutions including my research really complemented each other.

Question: You recently defended your dissertation; what was it like?

Answer: Given that we are currently in a pandemic, my defense was scheduled virtually, something which I was not used to. I was very nervous and in order to calm myself down, I told myself that “I’m the one that knows the work more than anyone else and if I fail, I will be failing myself.” So I picked myself up and gave it my best.

Question: What would you want emerging research scholars to know? 

Answer: Always believe in yourself and always stand up for yourself. When entering a PhD program, you must have the passion and motivation for pursuing it because most of the time you will have to work on your own and when you face obstacles you must find a way to overcome them. It’s not an easy road to take but there is light at the end of the tunnel, the results are worth it because you learn to be independent and be open-minded. Always show respect to your advisors all the time. Lastly, a quote that I learnt from my advisor (Dr Guerrant) that always helped me to face challenges head-on “Perseverance is everything”.