Sabin Gold Medal

Catching Up With 2021 Rising Star Awardee Nginache Nampota-Nkomba

When she won Sabin’s Rising Star award in 2021, the pandemic prevented a live awards ceremony. This year, Dr. Nginache Nampota-Nkomba of Malawi was able to attend the awards ceremony and be acknowledged in person.

Dr. Nampota-Nkomba is acknowledged during the 2024 ceremony.

Dr. Nginache Nampota-Nkomba won the 2021 Sabin Rising Star Award for her extraordinary leadership at Blantyre Malaria Project, a center of excellence in infectious disease research in Malawi established as a partnership between the Universities of Malawi, Maryland and Michigan State. She developed and implemented community-based research to inform immunization solutions in Malawi and on a global scale, was the on-site investigator for a clinical trial of a novel typhoid conjugate vaccine in children, and also investigated HIV/AIDS and malaria in vulnerable communities.

Last summer, she and her family moved to the U.S. so she could earn a PhD in epidemiology at the University of Maryland. She was able to attend the Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal and Rising Star Award ceremony this year in Washington, D.C., where Sabin caught up on her work and her goals.

The last time we spoke with you, you were still in Malawi.

I was part of a typhoid vaccine trial. It was the first time we were testing a typhoid conjugate vaccine on the African continent. And we did it in the city that I lived in, Blantyre, in Malawi.

Specifically, I was leading a team that was doing the safety and immunogenicity studies in healthy children and in children who are HIV exposed and uninfected because they’re an important population in Malawi and similar settings. We completed doing a booster dose study last year and we’re currently in the process of publishing all of this work so that it’s available for everyone to see.

Now I am a PhD student in epidemiology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. I’m working with the Center for Vaccine Development. I started in the fall of 2023, so I’m currently in my first year.

What inspired you to earn a PhD?

I joined the program because I want to be a better researcher, to independently conduct vaccine studies in Malawi and across the world. So that’s what I’ll be doing over the next four years. I get to learn the fundamentals of study design, statistical analysis and coding.


Dr. Nampota-Nkomba and her husband Enoch Nkomba attend the 2024 Sabin Gold Medal and Rising Star ceremony.
Are you looking to continue vaccine research?

My ultimate career goal is to be a globally competitive clinical researcher. I want to be a principal investigator in my own right. I want to be a grant holder. So I want to be able to generate, be the primary person bringing a research study that will answer important questions in vaccines and take those studies in Malawi. But not only there, I’d like to also do research here in the US and in other countries to get a broader experience in the field.

Do you see yourself developing new vaccines and testing new vaccines in the future?

The vaccinology field is very wide, but the part of it that I particularly enjoy is generating data for new candidates or existing candidates, and testing new schedules, trying to optimize when and how much vaccine is needed, and also testing new products.  I want to be involved in the clinical trials and then maybe follow on studies to see how best to position those new vaccines.

Did you encounter a lot of hesitancy around the typhoid vaccines, introducing something new?

I think one of the biggest opportunities in Malawi is that people are receptive to bringing their children in to receive new vaccines. They trust health care workers when it comes to childhood vaccines. Also, because we had established a good relationship with the community, parents were very willing to come to us. What’s interesting is we were doing some of this work during the COVID-19 pandemic. And as you know, in most of the world, there’s a lot of hesitancy when it came to COVID vaccinations. You would find that the adults would refuse to get vaccinated for COVID, but at the same time, they were okay to bring their children in to receive this new typhoid vaccine. As long as we clarified and told them these are different vaccines, they were perfectly happy to come.

Is introducing all new vaccines easier with children? Or just the diseases parents know?

One of the things we can take advantage of is multi-antigen campaigns. In the last two years, we had a cholera outbreak in Malawi that required oral cholera vaccination. We also had a polio case which required catch up vaccination for polio. This was all at the same time as COVID-19. And then we were talking about this new typhoid vaccine at the same time. So we rolled out a multi antigen campaign. Children aged nine months to five years, they got the typhoid vaccine, but we also used that opportunity to catch children up on their polio and on their measles and their vitamin supplementation. With more vaccines coming in, I think the best we can do is to make use of any opportunity to administer multiple vaccines as we can to catch up the kids who we might have missed initially.

Dr. Nampota-Nkomba with Sabin CEO Amy Finan and the 2024 Rising Star awardee Prof. Nicole Basta.
Looking back, did winning the Sabin Rising Star Award in 2021 make a difference in your life?

Just to have my colleagues at the Center for Vaccine Development nominate me was such a good feeling, because it validated the work that I was doing. After I received the award, I got more recognition in the field from colleagues and it just instilled a sense of pride and accomplishment for me, for my colleagues, for my organization, my family, and just reignited that flame, you know, where I know that this is the career I want to do for the rest of my life.