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Generous Grant Funds Vaccine Development at Keck Graduate Institute

Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) is pleased to acknowledge a generous $200,000 grant. The grant donors, who wish to remain anonymous, are providing the post-doctoral salary and lab supplies of Dr. Kelvin Phiri, who is working with other lab members to develop vaccines, including one for Zika virus. The Zika virus poses an active threat to pregnant women and their unborn babies in South America and now the United States. It has affected other parts of the world for half a decade.

Phiri, originally from Zimbabwe and most recently based in Botswana, traveled to Claremont and began working in Dr. Larry Grill’s KGI lab this month.

While he was in a molecular biology undergraduate program at the University of Cape Town, Phiri volunteered in the labs during vacations. “I developed a passion for trying to prevent diseases that are still around because the vaccines are either not available or are too expensive for the general population,” he said.

After his undergraduate studies, Phiri enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Botswana to focus on vaccine development. Grill was leading a lab shared by Pitzer College and the University of Botswana. Grill was able to provide resources to Phiri so he could pursue a vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease.

When he began his PhD research, Phiri switched his focus to lumpy skin disease virus (LSDV), and Grill was an adviser on his thesis. “The grant allows me to continue work on the LSDV vaccine I had started developing and got promising results with,” said Phiri. “The grant will also allow me to start working on three other vaccines I would otherwise never have been able to work on.”

In addition to developing vaccines for the Zika virus and LSDV, Phiri will also focus on Dengue Fever and Anthrax. “Anthrax is significant, as it has implications in potential bio-terrorism, and an affordable, effective vaccine is desirable,” said Phiri.

The grant at KGI will provide adequate, much needed resources for Phiri, which is a welcome change for this budding researcher. “The major factor affecting the progress I made in the development of a vaccine when I was still in Botswana was the availability of reagents and equipment,” said Phiri.

Working in Grill’s lab will make Phiri’s goals attainable. “Being allowed to work in a better equipped and funded environment will speed up and expand the scope of work I can do,” said Phiri.

To Phiri, the grant does more than just provide materials and equipment. “The grant allows me to fulfill a pledge I made to myself many years ago: to make a positive impact in the lives of underprivileged communities through vaccine development,” he said.

Phiri continued: “The impact of vaccines cannot be overstated. As someone who grew up in sub-Saharan Africa and who has seen the massive quality of life improvements thanks to vaccines, vaccine development is something I am passionate about.”

Driven by a personal goal, Phiri is happy to be able to continue his valuable work. “To be in the forefront or even involved in trying to improve the livelihoods of people in the developing world is an honor,” he said. Phiri’s work has the potential to impact people worldwide.