Imperial College London

Travel: Dr Beate Kampmann works at an MRC unit in the Gambia

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Illustration: Catherine Campbell

Academic paediatrician Dr Beate Kampmann has recently been appointed Head of vaccinology at the Medical Research Council unit in the Gambia.

by Tim Radford

Academic paediatrician Dr Beate Kampmann’s recent appointment as Head of vaccinology at the Medical Research Council unit in the Gambia has helped fulfil her long-held ambition of bringing laboratory and field work closer. Her work on tuberculosis in children has involved setting up an open lab between research sites in West Africa and at Imperial in London, where she is a Reader in Paediatric Infection and Immunity. But closer international collaborations and a dedication to improving global health still require time spent travelling, she tells Tim Radford

Beate’s open lab approach means that a team of over 80 African and European staff has the opportunity to work in both countries, leading to a shared vision for the research, more teaching opportunities, and ultimately better prevention and patient care.

The model gives everyone access to state-of-the-art laboratory equipment. European scientists get to see first-hand what tuberculosis (TB) and other infections do to children in Africa. TB is a global hazard but it claims very few lives in Britain. “In developing countries, most problems arise because the treatment is given too late, when the lungs have collapsed or the TB has reached the central nervous system or bones”, Beate explains. “That is not going to change very quickly, which is why we still need a better vaccine.”

Brought up near Cologne in Germany, Beate (PhD Paediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynaecology 2000) knew she wanted to be doctor from a young age. She studied paediatric medicine in the UK, and began to ask questions: “Why did this child become seriously ill with this disease, while that child walked out of casualty with the same bug and nothing much happened?”

An interest in HIV and TB took her to Africa, and another puzzle. The BCG vaccine against TB has been available for more than eight decades. “It is the world’s most widely used vaccine, and we still don’t really know why it works in some people and not in others.”

Travelling Light

Looking for ways of solving such problems keeps Beate on the move: “When you work in global health, travel becomes part of the package. You have to go where the action is,” she says. “We are not great on carbon footprints.” She flies to the Gambia for 10 days or so every other month. It takes six hours. She gets picked up at the airport and can be in the lab in half an hour.

“I have a house there. If I left here now, with a credit card, passport, laptop and my office keys, I’d be all right. I wouldn’t need much else, apart from my noise reduction headphones. I have grown very fond of those. Before the Gambia, I
was travelling to Cape Town a lot and it’s a 12-hour flight overnight. When you are in economy, 12 hours sitting up is a long time.” She also has a travel pillow, a small thing with rice grain sized stuffing that can form any shape, and socks for keeping her feet comfortable.

Off the Beaten Track

Once in the Gambia, there’s sometimes a five or six-hour Land Rover ride from the main laboratory on the coast along dirt roads to rural research sites inland. “Infection patterns can vary significantly between different communities, and it’s important to take the full range of conditions into account,” explains Beate. “For example, malnutrition is more common in rural areas, often making children more vulnerable to diseases.”

When we meet, Beate has just returned from a work trip that this time included some travel with her family – the writer and journalist James Cusick and their son, Sebastian. “The inland rural areas offer a different flavour from the more tourist-oriented coastal towns and villages. Each morning we were woken by an extraordinary concert of birdsong. We also got to travel down the Gambia river by boat, which is where you see the real beauty of the country.” Sebastian started travelling the world in a sling with his mother, when he was just six weeks old. “When he was 11, he said to me: ‘Mama, I can fly to Cape Town by myself next year; that will be my New Year’s resolution’. We make an excellent travel team.”

Illustration: Catherine Campbell

This article first appeared in Imperial Magazine, Issue 36. You can view and download a whole copy of the magazine, from www.imperial.ac.uk/imperialmagazine.

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Kerry Noble

Kerry Noble
Office of the Provost

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