Espoir Kyubwa is a 2011 Gilliam Fellow.

Espoir Kyubwa

As violence from a brutal conflict in Rwanda spilled into Zaire in 1996 and rebel soldiers made their way toward their village, nine-year-old Espoir Kyubwa, his mother, and brother fled to a refugee camp in Burundi. Within a few months they joined Kyubwa’s father, an engineering student in Sacramento, California.

Kyubwa’s desire to use medicine to help people in the country of his birth are framed by those early experiences in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC), the move to America, and a harrowing return to the Congo in 2010.

As a child in Zaire, Kyubwa was drawn to mystery, and nothing seemed more mysterious to him than medicine. He remembers a respected medicine woman in his village using plant extracts to alleviate pain and treat the sick. He remembers his mother distributing food for UNICEF and counseling women and families traumatized by the war. Kyubwa knew he wanted to be a physician, a healer.

“Coming from Africa to the U.S. was a cultural shock,” says Kyubwa, now 24. A fourth grade student in Zaire, he started in kindergarten to learn English and worked his way back to class with students his same age in six months with the help of additional classes and tutoring.

That language barrier may have temporarily slowed him down, but it also stimulated Kyubwa’s interest in science, thanks to the fact that math had been heavily stressed in Zaire.

“[It] was the common language that I shared with most of my [fellow] students. Naturally, I gravitated toward subjects that utilized mathematics,” says Kyubwa, who also credits a fifth-grade teacher with a Ph.D. who had emigrated from Russia. “This teacher really shared his background, and it gave me hope that even though English was still a difficult subject for me, I could catch up.”

As Kyubwa studied physics and chemistry and began thinking about college, he looked for ways to combine his passions for science and medicine. Although his father encouraged him to study electrical engineering, Kyubwa decided on bioengineering as the best of both worlds and enrolled at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

As a freshman, he worked with UCSD biochemist Russell Doolittle to study the steps in the formation of fibrin, a protein that helps blood clot. As a sophomore, he joined the lab of Robert Sah, an HHMI professor and bioengineer, through the HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). There, Kyubwa undertook a project looking at how cartilage integrates with bone and developed a method to measure the strength of the cartilage-bone interface.

Kyubwa’s experiences as a refugee and an immigrant shaped his activities outside the classroom and lab. He served as president of the UCSD chapter of the National Society for Black Engineers (NSBE), spearheading an effort to create an outreach program for underrepresented middle and high school students in San Diego. The group coordinated science and engineering experiments at a middle school in San Diego. He not only mentored kids living at a homeless shelter but also recruited fellow students to help teach weekly classes on how to apply for college, financial aid, and jobs. “A lot of students are really just like me. They are starting with nothing,” he says. “I felt that I could do a lot of good in the homeless community because any positive impact will show.”

On the cusp of entering the M.D./Ph.D. program at UCSD, Kyubwa returned to Congo in the summer of 2010 for a month-long visit that could have ended his academic career. After a gas spill in a neighboring village killed more than 300 people and sent many burn victims to nearby Uvira General Hospital, Kyubwa served for a week as a volunteer translator for the Congolese doctors working with physicians from Doctors Without Borders. But then a more personal disaster struck. Soldiers ambushed the truck carrying Kyubwa and other passengers traveling back to his village from a nearby city. The driver and six passengers were injured and Kyubwa was forced to leave all of his belongings, including his passport. To this day, Kyubwa believes that he would have been held for ransom had the soldiers realized that he was an American. Thanks to help from the chief of a nearby village, the U.S. embassy in Burundi, and his friends and family, he was able to fly back to California a week later.

“It was definitely frightening,” he says, “but I realized that it was something that I missed—something that was happening when I left Congo. I really just got a small taste of this war that I was fortunate enough not to experience.”

But the violent incident has not deterred Kyubwa from wanting to help the country of his birth. Before the ambush, he had met with a local health minister and visited hospitals in the area to assess their medical needs. He hopes to apply his research interest in tissue engineering to understanding medical trauma, injury, and rehabilitation.

“In fact, I’m more interested now just because I’ve seen the reality,” he says. “I have a lot of aspirations to develop something, maybe a teaching hospital or something along those lines. I’m really interested in helping and developing a program that might be successful.”

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Jim Keeley 301.215.8858