DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania, July 2009 – Dr. Thomas Egwang likes to call himself"restless." This is no surprise for a man who currently holds three titles across two countries—Executive Director of the African Academy of Sciences in Nairobi, Kenya; CEO of Uganda Media for Health; and Director General and CEO of Med Biotech Laboratories in Kampala, Uganda. And Egwang has no intention of stopping there.
With a thin frame, graying hair and beard, and small gold-rimmed glasses, Egwang possesses a professor-like cool. Sitting across from me, legs crossed, sipping a cup of tea, he speaks of his lifetime of experiences with little vanity.
"I like challenges," Egwang says. "Whenever I encounter a problem, I immediately want to find a solution. And I have a lot of energy—I always want to learn new things."
His hunger for a challenge began as a child growing up in Apac—an area of Northern Uganda known for having the highest burden of malaria in Africa. He knew from then on that he wanted to be a scientist—that the problem of malaria in his country was a problem he must solve through medical research. From that starting point, Egwang's education took him around the world—to Ontario, Canada, to Cleveland, Ohio, to Berkeley, California, to Franceville, Gabon, to Nairobi, Kenya—never resting in one place for more than a few years. He studied veterinary medicine, genetic engineering, immunology, parasitology. He researched filariasis, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, bird flu, climate change, cassava.
But eventually he needed a new challenge—one that would bring him back home to the idea that started it all. "Going back to Uganda, there was still a lot of malaria. And I thought, what can I do here? Malaria seemed to be a real challenge."
Seeing the toll malaria was still taking in Uganda, Egwang, who had always thought of himself as just a lab scientist, for the first time felt that his research could do more—that he could bridge the gap between his research and his community. "It was a feeling of coming home," he says.
With that, he went on to found Med Biotech Laboratories—the first nongovernmental, biomedical research institution in Africa, where, among other things, scientists are working with a Japanese organization to develop a malaria vaccine that is scheduled to undergo Phase 1 human trials later this year.
But Egwang hasn't settled yet. Now at 56 years old, he's pursuing a Masters in Business Administration. In addition, he just won a Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Explorations grant to develop an innovative needleless method of vaccinating babies. He would also like to start a program that pairs journalists with scientists in labs in an effort to foster better stories about health in the media. He's constantly re-inventing himself.
"We have to learn how to innovate," he says. "We need to come up with lots of ideas…First, you make sure you have a great idea and pursue it. You can worry about the details later."