Sometimes an experience from our childhood can leave us profoundly changed. So it is with Priscilla Amuma '19. "When I was little my friend died of sickle cell anemia," she said. We were only 7 or 8 years old, living in Ghana, and no one could help her. I felt so helpless."
This led Priscilla to study biology and pre-med at UMass Dartmouth, and to focus her research interests on diagnostic methods in non-industrialized countries like Ghana. "I know someone now who has been living with the disease for 25 years. We’re making advancements that have increased the life expectancy rate," she said. And she hopes to contribute to these advancements even more.
Research focus: sickle cell anemia
Priscilla hopes to develop technologies to help people learn that they actually have a disease like sickle cell anemia, then to educate them on options and ultimately provide treatment. There never seems to be enough funding in underdeveloped countries, and technology is especially scarce in small villages. But Priscilla sees promise in point-of-care (POC) devices that are small and can be carried right to the location of the patients. POC tests can now run as high as 98.9% with regards to specificity. For sickle cell anemia, new immunological assays are now available that provide early and accurate awareness of the zygosity of the disease, leading to more timely treatment.
Priscilla began her journey here at UMassD by taking Fundamentals of Hematology, a course taught by the Medical Laboratory Sciences (MLS) Department. Biology majors typically do not take this course, but she knew it would be vital to her work. And she attributes much of her progress to MLS instructor Malissa Norfolk, who has served as a mentor and has offered assistance on Priscilla's paper in this field of study. Prof. Norfolk has been instrumental in editing and discussing various aspects of the paper that Priscilla hopes to publish in a scholarly journal within the next 2 years. Priscilla also praises the Honors program as it gave her the opportunity to meet students and professors in other disciplines. "The Honors program pushes you to do your best and provides so many connections," she said.
Next steps: career in medicine
Eventually Priscilla hopes to study to be a physician's assistant and plans to be a doctor. Although she'd like to practice in the Boston area initially, she would eventually like to return to Ghana where her grandmother still lives. Humanitarian efforts on behalf of the people of Ghana are very important to her. As she pursues her goals, she hopes to continue her research, especially in gene therapy, as there are not a great deal of researchers working in this area. Her ultimate goal is to find a cure for sickle cell anemia.
"I'd like to tell the world's governments, especially here in the U.S., that they need to influence progress in this area, focusing on technological advancements that can help the people of non-industrialized countries." Certainly Priscilla will be a key contributor to this influence and progress.