The two inaugural Duke-Makerere scholars are continuing to adapt to life at the University, after coming to Duke from Kampala, Uganda to study biomedical engineering.
Started in 2014, the Duke-Makerere Biomedical Engineering Partnership brings together students from Duke and Makerere University in Uganda to work on pressing global health issues. As part of the initiative, graduate students Henry Kiwumulo and Kenneth Rubango received a full scholarship to come to Duke and study biomedical engineering.
“If you look at how much graduate tuition is, it’s 400 times the average annual salary for a Ugandan—it’s just totally out of reach,” said William Reichert, Theo Pilkington professor of biomedical engineering. “In order to do this, we had to just bite the bullet and say, 'we’re going to pay for everything.'”
The partnership is Reichert's brainchild, stemming from a teaching stint he had at Makerere University as a Fulbright scholar. This was a defining experience, he said, prompting him to see how Duke could help Makerere University.
Applicants from Makerere University take the GRE examination and apply to Duke's BME program. Those accepted automatically qualify for the scholarship program, Rubango added.
For the program to be effective, Reichert said it is important for the students to figure out what problems in Uganda they want to address, so that Duke faculty can "help them come up with the proper technology." At the end of the program, students are supposed to go back to Uganda and help educate others.
During his time at Duke, Kiwumulo wrote that he has learned "design skills targeting robust medical systems for low resource settings where a lot of dust, pests and power failures prevail."
Rubango has also appreciated his studies at Duke, in addition to the professional and personal connections he has acquired, he noted in an email.
“My [Duke Men's Rugby] teammates and teaching assistants like [first-year BME Ph.D. student Chris Eckersly], [senior John D'Angelo] and [graduate student Derek Chan], for example, are brothers in my big Duke acquired extended family,” Rubango wrote.
Although the first students in this program have faced challenges transitioning to Durham, Reichert said the program has worked to support their jump. For example, the University replaced Kiwumulo’s laptop and bought one for Rubango.
In particular, Rubango noted that he is grateful for tutoring support on how to use MATLAB, a computing application. He wrote that he had "frail software programming prowess" before arriving at Duke.
“I appreciate the flexibility and patience that my instructors, advisors and the Duke BME department have to accommodate my ‘catch-up’ in the areas that were lacking in my engineering background,” he wrote.
Rubango added that future iterations of the program could offer access to online coding tutorials for students to teach themselves pre-requisite skills. Even mediocre exposure to these skills would set a good precedent for the fast-paced style at Duke, allowing future scholars to better keep up, he explained.
Ultimately, the program—which Reichert said could sponsor four more scholars—is more for the benefit of Makerere University than it is for Duke.
“It’s a little less clear what we get out of it—other than the opportunity to work with these pretty amazing people to solve intractable problems,” Reichert said.
Kiwumulo highlighted the positive impact this experience has had on his life, adding that he is "indebted" to Reichert and the BME department.
"It can't all be narrated, but Duke University has all opportunities for one to pursue a successful career ranging from the top ranked professors to classmates and resources," Kiwumulo wrote. "I am really proud to have such a wonderful record in my life."