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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 a focus of research at the Paul. G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University, and was the topic of discussion at the WSU Innovators lecture series in Seattle on April 18, 2017.

“The Innovators event highlighted how WSU’s research in Africa impacts health in the U.S.,” said Omulo, a recent doctoral graduate of WSU.

Antimicrobial resistance is favored whenever antibiotics are used, but unregulated use and unsanitary living conditions contribute disproportionately to this problem. Curbing the resistance challenge requires a global team of experts. Scientists at WSU are working with global health agencies in East Africa to understand the emergence and spread of AMR and to develop solutions.

Omulo was one of the panelists at the Innovator lecture series. She 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’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health scientists Guy Palmer and Terry McElwain, who were in Kenya to roll out a population-based animal syndromic surveillance project.

In August of 2011, Omulo visited Washington State University for the first time while attending a quality management systems training by USDA and WSU. At that time, Omulo 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.”

Omulo has been researching AMR for her doctoral dissertation, focusing on risk factors and control policies for AMR-driven infectious diseases within crowded urban communities in East Africa.

Her dissertation research investigated the contributions of sanitation, environment, and antibiotic use in the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. She found that when the environment is saturated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it is hard to understand the contributions of various factors, including the role of antibiotics.

After her graduation ceremony in May, Omulo will continue her AMR research in Kenya as a WSU post-doctoral fellow. Her research as a post doc will advance the work of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health and help solve the critical problems facing the world, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases. She feels well prepared now to understand community priorities and to develop and design interventions to improve health in her home country.

In 2016, Omulo received the Epidemiology and Population Health Summer Institute at Columbia scholarship, and the Association for Faculty Women’s Karen DePauw Leadership Award.

She 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 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.