We’re taking time to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.

Thomas Atenya

Career Development Subcommittee

Kenya Institute of Primate Research

Research Interests:

I grew up in Kenya, a developing country in sub-Saharan Africa. There, health evolution is still taking shape to cover varied medical sectors. Because some sectors are lagging behind, the diagnosis of certain disorders, especially neurological ones, goes unnoticed. Over the past decade, neurodegenerative cases and their associated deaths have steadily increased in Kenya. The majority of the cases are misdiagnosed while some are dismissed as normal symptoms of aging. When my friend lost his sense of motility, speech, and eyesight, he was misdiagnosed as displaying symptoms of cerebral malaria. Since malaria is endemic in the region, it receives priority during diagnosis. However, it was later noted that he was suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological disorder where the immune system attacks the nerves. He is among the lucky ones; most neurological conditions are always misdiagnosed or overlooked. Besides this case, Parkinson’s disease, autism, Huntington’s disease, HIV-related neurocognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease are rising in the region with late diagnosis. This societal concern drove my need to utilize my passion in molecular genetics to study the driving factors of neurodegeneration.

I have a keen interest in understanding how epigenetics and brain trauma during development are linked to neurological conditions in later years. I’m specifically interested in exploring which pathways are altered, which genes are triggered, and what biomarkers can be identified in early diagnosis of such cases. Thus, I have secured a PhD position at the University of Ottawa to study neurobiology, focusing on the genetic mechanisms that control development, with special emphasis on the development of dopaminergic and GABAergic neuron populations in the forebrain. Monitoring targeted mutations in zebrafish model animals will help to understand rare genetic diseases affecting humans.

As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?

I aspire to get involved in work that will benefit my country or region. Sub-Saharan Africa is faced with many health challenges, ranging from tropical and infectious diseases to emerging acute febrile illnesses (AFIs) and sanitation problems. These issues become a priority to governments and an already overburdened health system. Therefore, neurodegenerative conditions—of a lower priority—are left unattended, perhaps because these diseases affect mostly the elderly community. Population studies are limited, and familial genetic histories are non-existent. Thus, people do not understand the risks associated with developing these conditions and the ways to manage them.

Academic medical research comes in handy when determining the root cause of neurodegeneration in affected populations in these countries. Advocating for genetic mapping and exploring the genetic determinants of neurodegenerative disorders in the Kenyan population are vital to understanding these conditions. Much of the Kenyan population has shifted to residing in urban areas. Exploring the genetic variability of urban residents to their rural counterparts could help determine whether the match-mismatch theory is also at play in regard to neurodegenerative diseases. For this theory, it is important to determine whether a link exists between the gut microbiome status and its subsequent play in susceptibility to neurological conditions. Therefore, my interest lies in exploring and understanding the genetic dynamics that might be predisposing the Kenyan population to neurological disorders. Incorporating the gut microbiome-neurodegeneration relationship will help unravel the rapid rise in neurological disorders. It is also imperative to advocate science-based therapeutic interventions to dementia-related disorders by promoting the expansion of neuropsychiatry research in the Kenyan medical research institutes. We need to create awareness of neurodegenerative ailments as normal conditions that can affect both the aged and young. This awareness will help demystify aging as the cause for neurodegeneration and make people understand that these conditions require both professional medical diagnosis and management at all ages. Despite the genetic testing system being expensive and less developed in Kenya, we need to advocate for genetic testing, create awareness for the need to understand one’s genetic history, and provide counseling for those found at risk of developing neurological conditions.

In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?

Science being a small world, diversity and inclusion play a bigger role in sustainable research. In advancing my career, I look forward to engaging and collaborating with people from all walks of life, fields, regions, and races. “Leave no one behind” should be embraced to tackle health challenges that affect varied populations of people across the world. Disparities in medical research and interventions should be resolved to promote a culture where everyone matters. As a whole, Africa has been left out of many groundbreaking medical research studies, negatively impacting the continent’s efforts to tackle dynamics in therapeutic medicine. I am therefore most interested in promoting a culture that includes everyone in research.

Mentoring and supporting young people to find their bearing in science is the greatest investment to the next generation of scientists. Having been nurtured to realize what is best for me makes me want to identify enthusiastic young people and guide them towards their career trajectories. Getting undergraduates interested in neuroscience early will help raise properly trained neuroscientists who will fill the gap we have as a society of neurobiology professionals. Mentoring students, teaching, and participating in educational outreach programs can have a lasting impact on science advancement.

Embracing technology and innovation in science can produce breakthroughs that seemed previously impossible. Exploring innovative approaches could help come up with better diagnostic/therapeutic interventions to existing neurological disorders and empower developing countries like Kenya to discover new disorders.

As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?

As a first-term early career leadership program fellow of GSA, I am learning the operations of the Society and what it has to offer in guiding early career scientists through developing their careers. GSA serves as a beacon of support, guidance, and inspiration for those of us who are still seeking to understand the dynamics of science. The robust relationships that the career development subcommittee and the Society work to create with professionals and companies in the broader scientific community showcase an overview of expectations and possibilities after our studies. I hope to expand the teachings of GSA beyond the highly literate world, especially in helping people understand the origin and effect of critical race theory, which brought new awareness to the globe. Through GSA, I have learned how to network, receive peer assistance, and also reciprocate the same to my peers and young scientists as they embark on their professional journeys. It has also fostered my ability to collaborate with others. Through collaborations, I understand how different model animals all play a part in varied research topics. Moreover, collaborations enable us to provide unparalleled opportunities for networking, mentorship, and exposure to cutting-edge developments in genetics.

Previous leadership experience

Project team lead fellow in Kenya, the Global Health Program (GHP) of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Chair of the Pwani University Biosciences Student Association (PUBSA), Kenya.

Graduate student and postdoctoral leaders from the Early Career Scientist Committees of the GSA.

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