The science of sevens: Meet rugby chemist Humphrey Kayange

Story highlights

  • Humphrey Kayange is the star turn in Kenya's rugby sevens team
  • But in his day job he works on research into improving antibiotics to fight disease
  • Kayange hails from the Rift Valley, an area renowned for long-distance running not rugby
  • Terrorist atrocities put bid for Kenyan IRB Sevens event under threat, he admits

By day, he dons a white lab coat. At the weekend, he terrorizes opposition teams in his bright red outfit.

Even Humphrey Kayange struggles to define himself. On his Twitter biography, he asks: "Rugby player/research officer or is it the other way around?"

In one walk of life, he is trying to help rid the world of disease as he works on new antibiotics at a British university. In another, he is one of the stars of the rugby sevens circuit, despite coming from a country best known for producing long-distance runners.

For all his prowess both on and off the field, his nickname perhaps lacks imagination -- "Tall" -- although at 6 foot 6 inches it must be said he lives up to the billing.

While he has bedeviled opposition defenses on the HSBC IRB Sevens circuit, it is his less heralded work behind closed doors at Bristol University that is of the greater consequence.

Broadly, his studies come under the banner of chemistry and math, but more specifically it is a research project on antibiotics.

    Just Watched

    The rising star of rugby sevens

The rising star of rugby sevens 02:06

    Just Watched

    Behind the scenes with Fiji Sevens

Behind the scenes with Fiji Sevens 03:03

    Just Watched

    Rugby on the rise in Japan

Rugby on the rise in Japan 02:46

"It's a massive project at the university," Kayange explains. "We're all trying to foresee antibiotics and developing resistance, so we're looking into developing new drugs.

    "It's more to do with bacterial infections and it's a very slow and steady process."

    The 31-year-old says the research is funded by British pharmaceutical multinational GlaxoSmithKline, which trials the compounds and active ingredients that the chemists provide.

    "There's been some positive results but it's a long process," he says.

    "The potential to do good things for human beings is amazing. It's an interesting project to be a part of."

    It may not seem likely on the surface but his rugby and chemistry are intertwined, even though most sevens specialists don't have quite the same academic achievements on their CVs.

    It was while training at Bristol University with the Kenyan national team three years ago that he was spotted by rugby officials at the training facility. They were interested in his rugby skills as well as his chemistry qualities. So he applied for a place, was accepted and moved to the southwest city in February 2012.

    He struggled initially to adapt to rugby life in a wintery England, being used to warmer climes on the sevens circuit.

    "One weekend I was playing in the sunshine of Las Vegas or in a New Zealand winter, and next it was a mud bath in Bristol. England in February was a shock but I got used to it and love it."

    His time in the city is coming to a close, with his thesis on examining tablets that are fed to fight bacteria drawing to its conclusion.

      Just Watched

      Finding America's next Rugby Sevens star

    Finding America's next Rugby Sevens star 02:10

      Just Watched

      Rugby's fastest man

    Rugby's fastest man 03:10

      Just Watched

      Can Rugby players take on the NFL?

    Can Rugby players take on the NFL? 03:52

    It is something he has juggled alongside his rugby commitments but later this year the sevens will once again become the major focus as he builds towards the 2014 Commonwealth Games and, bigger yet, sevens' debut at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

    Rugby was not an obvious sporting choice for Kayange, who grew up in Eldoret in the Rift Valley, a region renowned for producing Kenya's greatest long-distance runners. Many top athletes, such as double Olympic and world champion Mo Farah, go there to train each winter.

    "Growing up there, all you saw were long-distance runners, a lot of them," he says. "Because of our history, everyone expects sportsmen from Kenya to be runners."

    The long runs were never Kayange's forte. A sprinter in his youth, unlike most of his peers, he wanted to run fast but only over short distances.

    The other sporting passion was football, played out in often dust-bowl conditions on the dry pitches of the East African nation. Rugby was a mere afterthought.

    "I think I was 16 or 17 when I first played at high school," he recalls.

    "I wasn't interested -- I'd never really seen anyone play -- it was just a sport I had to try. I braced myself for it at first but, once I got used to the physicality of it, everything else was fine.

    "It was so confusing with the rules when I first started. I really remember in my first game just concentrating on throwing the ball backwards. But I think I had a good first game as I just wanted to run."

    He has kept on running to good effect ever since, scoring more than 130 tries in the international format for his country and starring in a series of victories against some of the true powerhouses of the sport.

      Just Watched

      What is rugby sevens?

    What is rugby sevens? 01:16

      Just Watched

      The history of rugby sevens

    The history of rugby sevens 04:49

      Just Watched

      Rugby's fastest game

    Rugby's fastest game 02:14

    In fact, his family has produced three rugby stars -- Kayange's brothers Collins Injera and Michael Agevi also play for Kenya. Injera is his country's top try scorer and is third on the IRB Sevens' all-time list with 183 ahead of the next leg in Scotland next month.

    The Kenyans arguably first made a global name for themselves with their on and off-field theatrics -- they often perform a dance after competitions -- which earned them the tag of "everyone's second favorite team."

    "I think we're quite different as a team, we love our running rugby, it's quite instinctive and everyone tends to love it," Kayange says.

    "We've also come a long way in the sport and have been getting some good results."

    The next step is for greater consistency in their results against the top teams, plus to have Commonwealth and Olympic aspirations.

    A proposal has been lodged to host a leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series but it has not been helped by ongoing security fears in Nairobi following last year's terrorist attack on the capital's Westgate shopping mall, when 72 people were killed.

    At the time, Kayange was playing with his compatriots and visiting teams from abroad on the other side of the city in the Safari Sevens.

    "It was almost the end of the day when we first heard news of what was happening," he recalls. "By the time we got back to our hotel, we only then properly heard the news. We've just been running up and down a rugby field and something this terrible had been happening.

    "Thankfully, I didn't have any close friends or family in there. I knew of one guy who was there hiding in the basement. He was stuck in there for 12 hours but got out okay. Can you imagine going through that?"

      Just Watched

      Lomu praises historic rugby coach

    Lomu praises historic rugby coach 06:05

      Just Watched

      New Zealand's rugby passion

    New Zealand's rugby passion 05:13

    The impact on the country was immediate. Tourism is undoubtedly down and, in terms of rugby spectators, it dropped from 20,000 for the first day to a mere 2,000 -- throwing doubt over a potential place on the sevens calendar.

    "I can understand that as teams going to another place need to feel safe, that is No.1," Kayange says.

    With rugby and chemistry, Kayange -- who was named an IRB Sevens anti-doping ambassador in 2010 -- has set his sights on making the world a safer place.

    His work in science will go on, whether that's in the UK or Kenya when his research project ends. As for his rugby playing, he has set his sights on the Rio Games after which, if fit and selected, he looks set to end his remarkable sevens journey.

    Watch: The secrets to creating the world's best runners in Kenya

    Read: Kenyan terror timeline

        Rugby Sevens Worldwide

      • spc rugby sevens scottish rugby 7s_00013830.jpg

        CNN's Christina Macfarlane looks at how the 2014 Commonwealth Games could help generate more interest in the sport.
      • Long-time rugby fans don't need graphs or charts to see that players are getting bigger -- but see how they compare to other athletes.
      • Fiji's Samisoni Viriviri was named player of the series for 2013-2014, after a season in which he scored 52 tries

        New Zealand may have retained the Sevens World Series in fine style, but a Fijian claimed the honor of being named top player.
      • aisale Serevi of Fiji in action during their semi final win over New Zealand during the Credit Suisse First Boston Hong Kong Sevens being played at the Hong Kong Stadium, Hong Kong.

        As a young child in Fiji, rugby star Waisale Serevi strained to hear tales of his heroes through the crackles of an old transistor radio.
      • Kayla McAlister of New Zealand warms up during the IRB Women's Sevens World Series at the National Rugby Centre Amsterdam Sportpark de Eendracht on May 18, 2013 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

        Two years ago, Kayla McAlister was playing netball. Now she's the world's best rugby sevens player, emulating her All Black sibling Luke.
      • Humphrey Kayange of Kenya celebrates with fans after winning the bowl final between Kenya and Scotland at Westpac Stadium on February 8, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

        By day, he dons a white lab coat and seeks to rid the world of disease. At weekends, he terrorizes opposition teams in his bright red outfit.
      • Bobsledding Olympic medalist Elana Meyers onstage at the 34th annual Salute to Women In Sports Awards at Cipriani, Wall Street on October 16, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for the Women's Sports Foundation)

        Not only is she getting hitched this month, but Winter Olympics star Elana Meyers is hoping to wed her bobsleigh skills to an entirely different ball game.
      • The annual sporting jamboree is the highlight of the social calendar for rugby fans who flock to the Hong Kong Stadium in their thousands.
      • Akira Ioane of New Zealand scores a try under pressure from England's Tom Mitchell during the IRB Sevens World Series cup semi final match in Wellington, New Zealand.

        His name means "bright light" in Japanese and he's already shining on the global stage. Meet the young New Zealander being hailed as the next Jonah Lomu.
      • It's the ultimate sporting world tour -- a combination of pace, power and partying through nine destinations. Discover the sevens circuit here...
      • Japanese fan wears Japan's colors before the 2011 Rugby World Cup pool A match France vs Japan at the North Harbour stadium in Auckland on September 10, 2011. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

        Spawned by university professors and dominated by big corporations, rugby in Japan is certainly different -- but it is also on the rise.
      • Many have matched his size, some his speed, but no-one ever combined the two to such devastating effect on a rugby field as Jonah Lomu.