As a young child, Sylvia Omulo, often one of the first picks on the playground at Kenya’s Nairobi South Primary School, lived to play. Her favorite game was kati, a Kenyan form of dodgeball, using an improvised ball of wet, wadded-up paper stuffed into a sock.

When she missed her chance to attend the high school of her choice, she realized she would never make it to a university if she didn’t switch her focus from fun to schoolwork. She also realized she loved biology. From there, science took over.

Sylvia Omulo at WSU examines a petri dish
Sylvia Omulo ’17 (Photo Geoff Crimmins/Moscow-Pullman Daily News)

“I became fascinated with how the human body works,” Omulo says. “The reason you have a pulse is because your heart valves open at a certain pace—no other subject gives you that. Biology is very real.”

Fast forward 20 years later, Omulo (’17 PhD Immunology & Infectious Diseases) is an assistant professor in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, specializing in antimicrobial resistance and infectious disease in her home country.

In partnership with WSU and the University of Nairobi, Omulo is leading a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded antimicrobial resistance study. This research project explores the prevalence of, and relationships between, some of the World Health Organization’s priority antibiotic-resistant pathogens, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), extended spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL)-producing Enterobacteriaceae, and Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE).

The study, in its second year, builds on Omulo’s doctoral work and takes place in the communities of Kibera and Asembo as well as the hospitals that serve them. The research aims to provide insight into what drives antibiotic resistance in the African nation, such as sanitation practices, antibiotic use, and exposure to animals or health care facilities. The end goal: to ensure people with bacterial infections have access to antibiotics that work when they need them most.

For Omulo, the research is personal. After high school, she suffered frequent bouts of tonsillitis. She had been accustomed to using a self-prescribed antibiotic for her recurrent infections: amoxicillin. But, on one occasion, the infection was so severe that her usual dose proved ineffective. Her uncle, a clinical officer, gave her an injectable antibiotic. This worked. Looking back, she says, that may be the first time she experienced antimicrobial resistance.

Omulo hopes her research will prevent children from enduring what she did, or worse. To that end, she sometimes struggles to turn science off. Her computer screen often glows into the early morning hours until she “guilts” herself into going to sleep, her upcoming workday often the only reason her head hits the pillow. “I really feel my work matters,” she says. “It impacts the life of people. I know even if I can make a small change, I will have done something for humanity.”

The work can be grueling. It involves looking for antimicrobial-resistant pathogens by collecting and analyzing hundreds of stool samples every week from urban and rural settings.

Omulo and her team have seen the devastating impacts of infectious diseases, especially inside the hospitals involved in the study.

“It’s hard when you see children who have their whole future ahead of them and know they may not live to see the next day,” says Omulo, who hopes her work will serve as a critical component to solve the antibiotic resistance problem.

She says one major piece of that problem is no one knows for certain how many people die from infections due to antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.

“Antimicrobial resistance is a silent killer,” Omulo says. “When patients die in a hospital, they just say someone was sick and died. The fact that antibiotics were unsuccessful against an infection doesn’t make it onto death certificates.”

Despite this, the World Health Organization recognizes antibiotic resistance as a threat to global health and estimates 10 million deaths worldwide by 2050 if no effective interventions are made.

Omulo says it was important for her to return to Kenya to improve public health on a global scale. “I want to contribute to science,” she says. “They say, ‘Leave the world better than you found it.’”

She hopes to leave a similar mark on her 21-member research team as well. “I want to impact them, so they become better people and scientists,” Omulo says. “It all goes back to the impact I want to leave.”