Marcel Tongo

Marcel Tongo

I hail from Cameroon. I grew up in the predominantly coastal areas in Douala and Nkongsamba during my primary and secondary education. I subsequently moved to Yaoundé for my tertiary and professional life. I have been working in the field of HIV for over 20 years, when I started my MSc in 1995.

Then in 2002 I was appointed as Research Scientist at the Institute of Medical Research and Study of Medicinal Plants (IMPM) under the Ministry of Scientific Research in Cameroon; in 2005, I was attached to the French-funded centre for emerging and re-emerging diseases. I was in charge of a project funded by the IAEA involving capacity development in five African countries in HIV research. I had the opportunity to attend an ELISPOT training workshop where I met my prospective PhD supervisor. I subsequently conducted two training visits in her lab at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and ultimately started a PhD programme in 2011 which I completed in 2014.

I am currently a SANTHE (Sub-Saharan African Network for Tuberculosis and HIV Research Excellence) postdoctoral fellow working with Prof Tulio de Oliveira (Africa Centre for Population Health at the University of KwaZulu Natal) and Prof Darren Martin (UCT), working on HIV evolution.

While my PhD thesis evaluated the influence of HIV diversity on the patterns of T cell recognition to peptides based on vaccine candidates in HIV-infected individuals from Cameroon, my current project seeks to work out the early history of the HIV-1 M pandemic and provide a better understanding on the origins and spread of different clades within the HIV-1M group with an emphasis on early divergent HIV lineages that are likely still circulating in the Congo Basin.

It is still unknown how global HIV populations will respond over the long-term when confronted with efficiently protective vaccines and drug therapies. It is entirely possible that divergent HIV variants that are presently circulating in diversity hotspots such as Cameroon and the DRC might be the source of future global vaccine evasion re-emergence events. Therefore it is of prime importance to identify and characterise these “relic” lineages.

The turning point in my career was the shocking realization that despite the fact that HIV originated from the Congo basin, there were little or no scientists from this region to tell the story; in addition, this was also buttressed by the fact that during scientific meetings of which I was a part, there were so few renowned Africans presenting their work. I wondered why and realized that I was perhaps part of the solution.

On the other hand, I love science, nature and I am fascinated about life. In this regards, when I was at school I came across some baby birds that had fallen out of the nest; I rescued 3 of them, feeding them daily, until one day they had disappeared. I had nurtured them and they had grown strong enough to fly away and survive on their own. This experience instilled in me a strong need to understand how life worked, how life adapts to different environments- including life that harms us, like viruses – despite being in the harsh environment of the human body.

It was not until later in my scientific training that I found supervisors and mentors that really helped me achieve what I have, and I feel very motivated to return to Cameroon and help young researchers freely in their scientific development. Cameroon and Africa is endowed with so much potential in young people to solve the problems of infectious diseases and I am motivated to help in my modest way.

On an everyday level, I get my ideas early in the morning, and lie in my bed thinking about them. As soon as I think they are worth pursuing, it gets me out of bed, because I have come up with something new worth testing in the lab.

A lot of hard work, there is no avoiding it. A lot of reading. A lot of interaction with people, not only within your immediate field, because some ideas come from related fields: although I work on HIV, I read a lot about the evolution of other viruses, such as influenza. Therefore, I would really encourage students to read widely.

Also getting into the mindset of thinking about how to solve a problem (that is what doing a PhD is, that’s what scientific research is).

You need to be very patient and focused and it is important not to fear failure, because you are sure to fail sometimes, both in experiments, applying for funding etc. You really need to build your strength of character in science, and it really can help you in your normal life!

I have found it really important to recognise that I have scientific expertise and that I can give back to the scientific community, in the form of reviewing manuscripts, marking thesis, etc. You only get better by exercising it. So don’t disqualify yourself from things. It is not just about waiting for invitations to be part of commitees or conferences or reviewing manuscripts and theses, it is volunteering to do these things because you have the skills.

Be really determined about what you want to achieve. Remember, you can influence your path, it is not about predestination or being lucky (even though luck can influence your path) but make your own luck, and seek your own opportunities. Remember luck is when hard work meets opportunities. Trust in God and work hard.

Key Papers

Tongo M et al., High Degree of HIV-1 Group M (HIV-1M) Genetic Diversity within Circulating Recombinant Forms: Insight into the Early Events of HIV-1M Evolution. J Virol. 2015. 90:2221-9.

Tongo M et al., Evaluating potential T-cell epitope peptides for detecting HIV-specific T cell responses in a highly diverse HIV-1 epidemic from Cameroon. AIDS 2015. 29:635-9.

Tongo M et al., Striking lack of T cell immunodominance in both a multiclade and monoclade HIV-1 epidemic: implications for vaccine development. Vaccine 2014. 32:2328-36.


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