Davis Mumbengegwi first started asking himself scientific questions during high school in Zimbabwe. "There are lots of questions that you start to ask," he says, "and you don't always get an answer so you have to keep thinking and inquiring."
Many of the questions Mumbengegwi asked himself were about health issues, so when he entered the University of Zimbabwe in the early 1990s, he studied microbiology and genetics. "At the time, I was fascinated with reports about efforts to create new bacteria that could break down compounds or genetic engineering studies to make plants that provide all of the essential nutrients in food and solve malnutrition," he says.
After completing his bachelor's degree in 1996, Mumbengegwi moved to England to study biotechnology and molecular biology at the University of Hull. There, he graduated at the top of his class with a master's degree. He went on to complete a doctorate at the University of Manchester School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
In 2002, he moved to Edmonton, Canada, to serve as a postdoc at the University of Alberta. "A lot of potential drugs don't make it through the pipeline because of the toxicity," Mumbengegwi says. "At the University of Alberta, I learned ways to target drugs and make sure that there is appropriate release." After that, he worked for a while on a research fellowship at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, studying molecular signaling and trying to identify drug targets. "My idea in doing my postdoc was to get a certain range of skills so that I could eventually settle somewhere and set up a lab and train others to use these skills in a different setting."
That opportunity came in 2009 when Mumbengegwi talked to the director of the multidisciplinary center at the University of Namibia, where scientists were working to develop new malaria treatments. The university was looking for a pharmaceutical scientist to evaluate antimalarial compounds synthesized in the lab. Mumbengegwi saw an opportunity to use his skills to fight a disease that had relevance in the part of the world where he grew up.
"If you're going to go for the big ones [in Africa], you're either going to go for HIV, tuberculosis, or malaria," he says, noting that in the northern, more populous regions of Namibia, nearly 70% of people are at risk of getting malaria.
Today, Mumbengegwi serves as leader of the pharmaceutical program at the university and as manager of the Malaria Research Laboratory. He travels to local communities to talk with traditional healers who use local plants to treat malaria patients. Many of the plants contain compounds with antimalarial properties. Mumbengegwi takes these plants back to the lab to evaluate the efficacy, safety, and bioavailability of the various compounds.
He is starting to look into the medicinal properties of plants used to treat cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. "These diseases are on the rise in Namibia with lifestyle changes," he says.
When Mumbengegwi joined the university 2 years ago, he didn't have the lab space or equipment to start his research project. Namibia, which gained its independence in 1990, is still very much a developing country, so funds are tight and other resources scarce, Mumbengegwi says. "Much of the focus has been on gaining sufficient critical skills and technical expertise," he says. "Most of the laboratories at the university, for that reason, are teaching labs and not strictly research labs."
Mumbengegwi and his scientific colleagues are closing the expertise gap in part by collaborating with research groups and organizations outside the country. Currently, Mumbengegwi is working with a group at Rutgers University in New Jersey to evaluate indigenous plants with potential for commercialization as food, medicine, or dietary supplements. He is also collaborating with researchers at the Kenya Medical Research Institute and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and beginning work with the Clinton Health Access Initiative.
Research funding is always a challenge. Mumbengegwi says that both the university and the Namibian government recognize the link between research and development and are looking for ways to increase science funding. For now, it remains difficult to find funds to pay for lab equipment, let alone luxuries such as travel to scientific meetings, he says. "Science research is a bit more expensive than other kinds of research, because we're trying to buy antibodies which may cost thousands of Namibian dollars, and that might fund an entire project in another field."
Susan Gaidos is a freelance writer based near Portland, Maine.