Meet WCAIR Trainee Andrew Mtewa

Andrew Mtewa is a Medicinal Chemistry PhD student from Blantyre, Malawi who is spending nine months with  WCAIR to develop his understanding of drug design and skills in dug synthesis. Last month Andrew talked to University of Dundee’s Media Relations officer Jonathan Watson about his experiences as a WCAIR trainee.

Andrew is currently based at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda under the PHARMABIOTRAC, meaning that he is often away from his wife and three children for months a time. While this current placement means that he will be away from his family for Christmas, he says that the opportunity to enhance his knowledge and skills in Dundee will help to define his career.

“I was really excited when I learned I was coming to Dundee,” he said.

“I enjoy my work back home but we have limited resources. Coming here means I have my own lab space where I can progress with my work. In Uganda I can hardly do what I am doing here, so this has really helped me to grow.

“When I first came to the labs I will admit that I was nervous. The technology is advanced and I really didn’t want to break anything. If we were to do that back in our labs then that would cause a significant problem. But here, if things break in the course of working then they are replaced more easily. The other thing I like about the lab here is the timely availability of materials and equipment to keep your work going.

“The people here have also been incredibly friendly and shown me how things work if I don’t know, which has been very helpful. I should thank WCAIR, particularly Dr. Lauren Webster, for her approach in turning me into a Medicinal Chemist from a natural product background.”

Having arrived in the summer, Andrew will continue to learn at the WCAIR before returning home in March. While admitting that returning to his labs will prove professionally frustrating, he says his time in Dundee has given him the motivation to push the boundaries of scientific study in Africa.

“Carrying my work forward when I go home will be difficult, but one of my colleagues said to me ‘even if you don’t have a car, that shouldn’t stop you from learning to drive’.

“Yes, there are limitations to what work can be done, but there are no limitations to what I can learn. I can collaborate with other scientists in countries within our region who may have one or two pieces of equipment and tools focusing on drug designing and synthesis, so the skills I am learning here I can still use when I return.”

As well as improving his scientific skills, Andrew is using his Scottish experience to learn more about the local culture, even sampling the country’s national dish.

“I tried haggis and really liked it!” He joked.

“Somebody told me that if I go to Scotland and don’t try haggis then I haven’t really been there, so I had to do it. My diet at home is quit carb heavy and I had never tried anything like it before. It was really nice though.

“One thing I was worried about was the weather. I knew it was going to be colder than Blantyre as my mother had visited before, but Scotland in the winter is really beautiful and it’s nice when I can look out of the window, see the sun shining and feel the warmth. It’s a bit colder when I go outside though!

“My family miss me very much but I talk to them every day. When I’m in Uganda I go home every couple of months as it is closer, but this is the longest that I’ve been away from them.

“I’ll also be away for Christmas, but I’m going to use that time to see some of the country. I’ve never seen London before so I’m going to take the train there and see some of the famous places.

“Coming to Dundee has been such an exciting opportunity for me. The skills I will take home with me will make me a better scientist and help to create a better future for all of my family and the African science community, particularly in drug design and synthesis.”