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Washington State University Graduate School

Seeking Solutions to Antibiotic-resistant Bacterial Infections

Recent doctoral graduate Sylvia Omulo is working with a team of WSU scientists to stop the spread of untreatable infections.

By Cheryl Reed

Recent news reports have focused public attention on the alarming threat of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in U.S. hospitals—but the threat is truly global. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is favored whenever antibiotics are used, but unregulated use and unsanitary living conditions also contribute disproportionately to the problem.

Sylvia Omulo, a 2017 WSU doctoral graduate, is part of a team of scientists working with health agencies in East Africa to understand the emergence and spread of AMR and to develop solutions.

Omulo earned her bachelor’s degree in biomedical science and technology from Egerton University in Kenya, and her master’s degree at the University of Leeds in the UK. While working with the Kenya Medical Research Institute/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KEMRI/CDC) program, she met WSU scientists Guy Palmer and Terry McElwain, who were in Kenya to roll out a population-based animal syndromic surveillance project.

Then in August of 2011, Omulo visited WSU for the first time while attending a quality management systems training by USDA and WSU. At that time, she was transitioning to a new position within the KEMRI/CDC program after earning her master’s degree.

“While on a tour of WSU’s Pullman campus, Terry McElwain asked me if I was interested in pursuing a Ph.D. here,” says Omulo. “So when I finished my obligation to the KEMRI/CDC program in August 2013, I came to WSU to begin my doctoral work in Doug Call’s laboratory in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health.”

Omulo researched AMR for her doctoral dissertation, focusing on risk factors and control policies for AMR-driven infectious diseases within crowded urban communities in East Africa, looking at the contributions of sanitation, environment, and antibiotic use in the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. She will continue her AMR research in Kenya as a WSU post-doctoral fellow following graduation in May 2017. She says that she feels well prepared now to understand community priorities and to develop and design interventions to improve health in her home country, and is glad she chose Washington State University for her Ph.D. program.

“As a PhD student at WSU, I received excellent faculty mentorship. My advisor and doctoral committee continuously held meetings with me about my research proposal and prepared me well for my preliminary exams. I did not realize what impact that preparation had until I got back to Kenya to conduct my research. My previous colleagues told me that something about me had changed—I had become a confident leader.”

Omulo is not only a leader and a scientist, but a talented artist as well. She won national awards in Kenya for her art, some of which paid her undergraduate tuition.

“I draw, paint, and hand-craft greetings cards,” she says. “If I hadn’t pursued science, I would have studied the arts.”

“My time at WSU has been a rewarding experience. The academic environment here provides conditions that are highly conducive to learning. I can credit some of my successes as a student to the Pullman campus location—fewer external distractions and more student-oriented activities.”

To become part of WSU’s research, visit gradschool.wsu.edu to find a graduate program that fits your talents and interests.