Catherine Kibirige knew she wanted to work in the area of HIV research at an early age. In addition to being very interested in science as a child, she also witnessed firsthand HIV’s devastation in her family’s homeland of Uganda.
“It was very, very devastating…. We ended up losing a lot of people……[we] lost close cousins, relatives,” she recalls. “And science being my strongest subject…it just piqued my interest.”
The family would later relocate to the U.K. “It was a rarity meeting other African people in the town [where we lived],” she recalls. “And people were just getting used to us being there as a Black family…It was a lot of adapting and then a lot of explaining.”
When it was time to venture out on her own, Dr. Kibirige traveled to the southwest corner of England to further pursue her career in science at the University of Bath. She achieved a Masters of Biochemistry there, and later her PhD in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S.
While working on her first post-doctoral position with the U.S. Military HIV Research Program, Dr. Kibirige was presented with a problem which became an unexpected project. The trial was using an assay (a lab test used to find and measure the amount of a specific substance) but it did not detect all of the circulating HIV subtypes.
“I was working in a technology assessment laboratory…and was involved in helping the different companies test out new versions of the assays and making sure that they covered all the different strains. The military, having troops deployed all around the world, had a very diverse repository [of HIV strains], so they were able to provide all sorts of different strains for companies to kind of test and upgrade their assays.”
This began her work on re-developing the assay so it would be more sensitive and able to detect more of the various HIV subtypes and variants — which she has now successfully done. But Dr. Kibirige adds that another issue is cost. She says that finding ways to produce and distribute it cheaply in places like Uganda is vital.
“I’m actually focusing on the cheapest, easiest version, which is the version that detects cellular DNA…so you don’t actually have to do any DNA extraction,” she says of the new assay. “It’s very low tech.” She is also working on a process to freeze dry the tests, so they will have longer shelf lives at room temperature. This means the tests would no longer require a “cold chain” (a delivery process requiring uninterrupted temperature control) and enable them to be easily administered at the point-of-care in resource-constrained settings.
Dr. Kibirige explains that enabling the assays to be produced and distributed on location in places like Uganda is vital because more people will have access to testing where it’s needed most and it will also greatly improve research capabilities in the area. Ultimately, this will lead to improving life for more people living with HIV worldwide.
Dr. Kibirige, who is also a mental health advocate, says the fact that she is an immigrant and a woman of color making great strides in the world of science and technology is not lost on her. “I would say to minorities [in science and tech], to just keep going,” she says. “And us women in science, we have a unique voice, we have a unique perspective… And I think we tend to work on things that we’re passionate about, so we have an important voice.”
Learn more about Dr. Kibirige’s story and others, in the newest episode of HIV Heroes.