Herbert Mukiibi has an immaculate way of holding himself. I notice this as we sit across from each other in our exclusive graduate student molecular virology seminar. Herbert is a part of Vet-Micro’s novel Infectious Disease Management graduate program and hails from Uganda. The idea behind the program is to show the students enrolled in it the real face of emerging infectious disease threats and supplement it with research in real-time so that the best of both the lab and the real world may be afforded. Those of you who may find these ideas lofty and impracticable need to be in this virology seminar, for here is where the cerebral meets the corporeal and true synthesis occurs.
As I was saying, Herbert Mukiibi has an immaculate way of holding himself. The gentleman, erudite as he is with his veterinary background, is taciturn. He speaks with an economy that only allows ideas and his knowledge to take center-stage. I find this out as we, the class and our raconteur Dr. Berry, drift into a conversation about rabies. Somehow, Nate (our plucky undergrad auditing the course) and I have drifted into the molecular biology of Rhabdoviridae and viruses with negative-sense single-stranded RNA for genomes. Words like “ribonucleoprotein” and “transcription” are being thrown about when Herbert, in his quiet, authoritative way adds, “Even humans affected by rabies want to bite people. We’ve seen this in Uganda. We even have to restrain them. It’s just one of the ways these viruses get passed.” As Dr. Berry, with risen eyebrows asks, “Really?” in my mind, a camera seems to be panning out of Pixar-esque renderings of RNA and polymerases and is focusing on my imagination’s version of a rabid human. Just like that, swift as can be, the statement “Humans are a dead-end host for the rabies virus” has, well, not been repudiated, but has gained another dimension. A dimension that could not have existed for us were it not for the Ugandan experience.
The hours pass but they do not feel like hours for the air is abuzz with ideas: didactic facts juxtapose themselves to thrilling, if somewhat morbid realities, of virology. A detailed treatment of the molecular pirouettes involved in the cap-snatching mechanism leads us to a heart-rending account of saving a litter of puppies afflicted with the B-19 virus of the Erythrovirus family. The atmosphere is heady, and this class, well, is trippy! I, for once in my life, am rendered speechless. There is so much going on! So much more than was bargained for! ‘This is it,’ I realize, ‘This is what grad school is supposed to be: freedom from the confines of textbooks and into eerie, uncharted territory that is familiar but strange, for one has begun one’s transition from being a mere imbiber of knowledge to one who synthesizes it. Wow.’
“…You see, a virus is just looking for a house in a host.” Says Michael Muleme, with a soft smile, about host and tissue tropisms.
“That’s quite beautiful, almost poetic,” Dr. Berry responds with a short, appreciative laugh. “I’m going to call that The Muleme Corollary.”
I cannot help but nod in agreement: The Muleme Corollary has, for me, liberated the word, ‘pathogenesis’ from its more malevolent connotations. Ironic as it may be, given how Michael phrased it, I cannot anthropomorphize viruses as vile scourges that despotically hijack the body: virus-host ‘relationships’ are what happen as evolution takes its course. My world isn’t so simple anymore, and this is a good thing. A wonderful, ineffable thing.