By many standards, Mireille Kamariza is at the top of the world.
She's a graduate student at one of the world's top universities, working on her Ph.D. with one of the world's top chemists. And she's tackling a tough problem — tuberculosis — that sickens nearly 10 million people a year.
Earlier this year, 27-year-old Kamariza and her adviser unveiled a potential breakthrough in fighting TB: a way to detect the culprit bacteria faster and more accurately.
But for Kamariza, the fight against TB is not just about scientific progress and prestige. It's personal.
Kamariza grew up in the small African country of Burundi, where many around her were stricken with TB. A close relative lived with the disease for years — and eventually died from it. It was common for people in her town to get sick with TB and "wait to see if you'd die — and if you survived, you'd just kind of live with it."
A World Health Organization report released in October states that an estimated 10.4 million people were infected with TB in 2015, up from previous years — and 1.8 million died from the disease.
TB is still a stigmatized disease in Burundi, so Kamariza doesn't want to be specific about her relative's identity. But, she says, he most likely didn't get treated "because he didn't know you could be treated, and even if he did know, [treatment] was far from where he was — and expensive."
Kamariza's journey hasn't been easy. In Burundi, it's rare for girls to attend college — not to mention work with world-class scientists.
"Science was something that Europeans and Americans did," she says. "It was for other people — not for me." When she was in high school, she didn't have a clue about science careers. Neither did her parents.
"I never dreamed [Kamariza] would become a scientist because it is a career path that is unknown in Burundi," says Denise Sinankwa, Kamariza's mother.
Sinankwa had her hands full when Kamariza was young. She and her husband were raising four kids during a bloody civil war. Nearly 300,000 civilians were killed. The family moved a lot, and Sinankwa often worked multiple jobs to feed the family.
But Sinankwa still pushed Kamariza to do well in school. She wanted her daughter to land a good-paying job and be able to support herself.
Kamariza considers herself lucky. She attended a government-managed Catholic school, where "things were more rigorous" than other public schools. The "nuns' school" instilled a mindset most of her peers lacked because generally girls "were raised to be a wife," she says.
Kamariza wanted to pursue studies in the U.S., where her second-oldest brother had already landed. So, when she was 17, Kamariza packed up her belongings and traveled with her third brother half way around the world. She went to San Diego in the fall of 2006 and moved into a tiny studio apartment with her brothers. The four worked various jobs at grocery stores, restaurants, retail shops — "whatever we could get to pay the bills," Kamariza says. Their earnings also paid for classes at a junior college.
Then Kamariza's hard work started to pay off.
At San Diego Mesa College, she found a life-changing mentor. Her chemistry teacher, Saloua Saidane, was a fellow French-speaking African. Born to illiterate parents in Tunisia, Saidane was one of 12 children and knew what it was like to be a poor immigrant kid pouring herself into school as the only way to a better future.
"Kamariza was serene yet determined," Saidane says. "She worked hard. She saw the opportunity to have a good life, a life different from what she left behind."
Saidane started Kamariza's journey into science. "She really pushed me and kept motivating me and telling me I should aim high. Whatever she told me, I did," Kamariza says.
After quitting her job at Safeway to focus on school, Kamariza got into the University of California, San Diego, and began undergraduate studies. Through a National Institutes of Health diversity scholarship, Kamariza spent summers doing biology research. In 2012, she joined Carolyn Bertozzi's lab — then at the University of California, Berkeley, now at Stanford University — as a graduate student.
Kamariza wanted to focus on infectious disease. So she started brainstorming with another graduate student to figure out a quicker, better way to diagnose TB.
They eventually came up with a new test that recognizes a sugar, called trehalose, that is uniquely found in TB bacteria. In the presence of a special substance, TB bacteria cells glow green, making the microbes easy to spot on microscope slides of an infected person's mucus or saliva.
Current TB tests are laborious and not very sensitive — some infections are missed. TB cultures are more reliable but take six weeks to produce a result. Kamariza — and other researchers elsewhere — are creating methods that could make TB diagnoses simpler and more accurate.
Kamariza's method looked promising this year when she and her colleagues tested it on a small batch of samples from patients in South Africa. But the tools are still in the developmental phase. Larger, more rigorous studies are needed for the method to be considered for use in clinics.
Though unfinished, the research drew heavy crowds when Kamariza presented her data on a poster at a TB conference in September in Paris. Considering her improbable journey — from a child witnessing the tragedy of this disease to a young researcher contributing toward its eradication — "the whole experience is surreal," Kamariza says.
"A lot of hard work, a bit of luck, perseverance and relentless support from friends and family are what got me here," says Kamariza, She hopes her experience can "encourage others like me to pursue their passions, no matter the obstacles."