My Makerere-Fulbright Story.

I completed my A level studies at Kings College Budo in 1971 with the intention of joining the Makerere University Medical School in 1972.

” When the admission list was published all my colleagues in the class of 20 were admitted to either the Medical School or Veterinary school, but my name was missing. ” Prof. Ntambi notes

I struggled to understand why my name was missing and concluded that I had been rejected by the medical school.

I was sad, devastated, and depressed. I found out after several weeks and after I had registered in Makerere University, Faculty of Science that I had been selected by the Uganda Government to receive a scholarship to study medicine in Pakistan but for some reason I did not receive the award letter in time. When I went to the Ministry of Education to claim my Scholarship, I was told that because they had not heard from me, they thought that I was not interested and therefore awarded the scholarship to somebody else. I was so devastated especially for missing out an opportunity to study abroad.

I had no choice but to continue with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry, Zoology and Botany. In my second year I was admitted into a 3:2:2 program in Chemistry and Biochemistry. I completed my undergraduate education in 1975 with an upper second BSc degree and through the support of Professor Lutalo-Bosa I was appointed by the Staff development program directed by Mr. John Gita as a teaching assistant but also registered in a master’s program in microbial biochemistry which I completed in 1978. I was then appointed a lecturer in Biochemistry and had the opportunity to teach medical, veterinary and science students the aspects of metabolism.

Prof. James Ntambi at a Makerere University Graduation ceremony in 1978 receiving an MSc degree in Microbial Biochemistry awarded to him by the then Chancellor, Gen. Idi Amin. 

My teaching and research career took a turn one day in early 1980 when Mr. John Gita invited me for a cup of morning tea in the main administrative building where I met the academic Registrar Mr. Onyango just as I was leaving the room to go back to my department.

Mr. Bernard Onyango was shocked to see me because he had been looking for me for weeks and had been sending messages to my department to let me know that I had been selected to receive a US Fulbright scholarship to study for a PhD at a university in the USA.

” The messages again for unknown reasons were not being delivered to me. In the afternoon of that same day, I went to Mr. Onyango’s office and picked up the Fulbright Scholarship application forms. “Prof. Ntambi Reiterates

I applied to several Universities in the US including Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins and submitted them to the American Embassy in Kampala. I sat for the graduate record exam (GRE) as required and several weeks later I received a response from Johns Hopkins University medical school that I had been admitted to their Graduate program in Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology or BCMB.

This was very exciting to me and erased the devastation I had undergone when I missed out on that award to study medicine in Pakistan. If I had not gone for a cup of tea in the main building and had left the tearoom a few minutes earlier, I would have missed meeting Mr. Onyango who indicated to me that they had identified somebody else to receive the Fulbright scholarship. This would have been another moment of devastation in my life.

” I did the TOEFL exam and in September of 1980 I travelled to Baltimore MD to start graduate training in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. ” He adds.

This program was fully funded by the Fulbright scholarship and administered by the Institute of International Education or IIE based in New York City.  I completed my PhD in 1985 and my postdoctoral training in 1989.

In the 1990s, I became involved in an international teaching and biomedical research effort, training, and guiding USA and Ugandan medical, veterinary and science students mainly in the areas of molecular biology and immunology of tropical diseases using molecular biology/genetic engineering and recombinant DNA techniques at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.

Currently, I serve as Steenbock endowed professor of biochemistry and of nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison USA as an active teacher and researcher. My current research focuses on the molecular basis of diabetes and obesity. I have begun to extend my expertise in this area to study and conduct research on obesity and diabetes in developing countries.

During the summer of 2000, I collaborated with Dr Michele Otim the leading diabetes physician at Mulago Hospital, Uganda on a research project that got me interested in diabetes research in Uganda. Our paper entitled “Obesity and Gender Differences in the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Uganda” was published in the International Journal of Applied and basic nutritional sciences in 2002.

” My relationship with Fulbright continued in the 2000s. In 2008 I received a Fulbright Research award to return to Uganda for a sabbatical. ” Prof. Ntambi notes.

My Fulbright sabbatical proposal achieved two outcomes. First, working in collaboration with Makerere University faculty, I collected baseline data to establish whether there is a relationship between long-term anti-retroviral drug treatment and the prevalence of type 2 diabetes among people living with HIV/AIDS exposed to specific ARVs in Uganda.

Second, the program was used to strengthen future international research and opportunities for students and faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Makerere University Kampala Uganda.

I have made distinguished contributions to the field of nutritional biochemistry and my pioneering work on the genetic regulation of the stearoyl-CoA desaturase enzyme has recently led to many new insights into the importance of this enzyme in metabolism and in disease states such as obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, inflammation, and cancer.

This pioneering work will help explain the complex aspects of the “metabolic syndrome” and to advance our understanding of nutrient gene interactions. Through my research career, I have published 260 peer-­reviewed scientific papers and edited several books on lipid metabolism.

I will end my story here by thanking the Ugandan Government, Makerere University, and the US Fulbright scholarship program for spearheading my research and teaching career. When I look back now, I should not have felt devastated for losing out on the opportunity to study medicine in Pakistan and become a medical doctor which had been my aspiration after high school.

” God had a different career plan for me and has a plan for each one of us in our lives.” Prof. Ntambi notes.

In my case God’s plan was for me to become a scientist, researcher and professor which was certainly enhanced by the Fulbright scholarship program through Makerere University. 


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