Holding on to a dream

In Body
Written by  Wangu Mwangi Friday, 01 January 2010 00:00

Liliane Mpabanzi always wanted to make a difference

As an African woman living in the Netherlands, I am thrilled to be asked to profile another African woman, Liliane Mpabanzi. This medical PhD-student turns out to be a courageous and self-assured young woman who defies easy labels. She has just won a prestigious research grant - the Mosaic scholarship awarded by the Dutch research council (NWO) to improve the representation of ethnic minorities in academic research. One of only 20 recipients country-wide, Liliane Mpabanzi embarked on a four-year PhD course at the Maastricht University medical school in October 2009.

From a young age, Liliane always wanted to make a difference. But her world was shattered by the devastating violence in Rwanda in 1994. Her family fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo but as the war there intensified, the young girl found herself back on the road again. Friends took her back to Rwanda and arranged an escape to the Netherlands in 1999.

Her flight from Rwanda was the first encounter with real poverty and suffering for a girl who had experienced a privileged, international upbringing. At their refugee camp, her family lived close to a place that was used as a temporary cemetery for all the cholera victims. “When I saw mothers crying, loosing their kids and partners, I always hoped that one day I would be able to help people in the same situation. I couldn't bear to see everyone dying around me without me being able to help them. So ultimately, the war made me choose to study medicine.”

1+1

With two other minors, she lived in supervised accommodation in Haarlem. She began to learn the language. “They started by teaching us 1+1 and were surprised when I got the right answer,” she laughs. “After three days they transferred me to a school for smarter people and instead of 1+1, I got 5+3. In Rwanda, I was already in my third year of secondary school.”

Finally, Liliane was able to resume her studies. Although still learning Dutch, she had no problem with mathematics, chemistry or physics “where you don’t need language to understand. And of course I got perfect scores for French, which I was already fluent in. The 15 year old Rwandese girl sailed through VWO (Dutch grammar school) in Haarlem before moving to Maastricht for her medical studies. Reflecting back on this time, Liliane is still amused at the reactions to what, for her, were perfectly ‘normal’ abilities. “I fled a war, but I still had a brain.”

Passion

Liliane never imagined that she would take the path of medical research. The obligatory research project at the end of her course was a “boring” necessity to complete her degree. However, her supervisor, liver surgeon Dr Steven Olde Damink, triggered her interest in investigating the link between liver failure and renal ammonia transporters. He also advised her to apply for the Mosaic grant. She now divides her time between her base at the Maastricht University Medical Centre (MUMC+) and the Institute of Hepatology in London to work with a top medical team on what promises to be path-breaking research that might uncover a cure for hepatic encephalopathy (a syndrome caused by liver failure).“The liver clears the blood, so if it fails you accumulate toxics. One of these is ammonia. We will study whether the ammonia transporters can be stimulated so that you can lose more ammonia than usual through the urine. We will take the two strands of research and merge them and hopefully come up with something new.”

Dream

For now, Liliane is living the perfect student dream: not having to worry about money and with a large circle of friends. With her flawless Haarlem accent, she is perhaps more “Dutch” than many native speakers! She will be proud of what she has achieved, I assume. Liliane shrugs this off, stressing that she has had the fortune to encounter support at crucial turning points in her life. “I was raised by very bright parents who thought that education was the key to success. I have always wanted to make my family proud and I do believe that wherever they are, they can see me and smile. I also believe I survived the war for a reason.”

In the future, Liliane hopes to combine being a surgeon with doing research. Her dream hospital will be “a clean, modern and easily accessible teaching hospital somewhere in a beautiful (sunny!) Sub-Saharan African country where all my national and international friends will come and help in anyway they can.” It will apply the best available knowledge and technology to solve local problems. The staff will live not much better than the local people. You need to have millions of such initiatives to make a difference. “Therefore I want to start a teaching hospital. It’s about giving people tools to unlock their potential. If I pass my skills to 10 persons and half of those do the same, we will achieve some scale.”

Fame

As a little girl Liliane dreamt of fame “so that I could help people with my millions.” As a grown up woman, she hopes “these millions will be my determination and my brain. With that and a bit of luck I will be able to save many lives in Africa.” No less important for her is a future with a lot of friends, “being able to enjoy a good meal and my very handsome boyfriend by my side.”

Liliane Mpabanzi’s research is supervised by Professor Cees Dejong and Dr Steven Olde Damink. It is a collaborative project between the MUMC+, the University College Hospital of London and the Institute of Hepatology in London. The research at Maastricht University is embedded in the NUTRIM research school. To contact Liliane Mpabanzi: email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or phone +31 43 38 84502. “Away with ammonia”, an interview with Liliane on her research is published in Maastricht University eResearch Magazine.

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