AfriPlantSci 19 – A Summer School Making a Difference
“The training created awareness, enhanced capacity, created an opportunity for researchers to network, brought forth new research ideas and opportunities for south south and north south collaborative research on African Plant Health.”
– Professor Mohamed S. Rajab, Vice-Chancellor, Pwani University.
Take a group of highly motivated, early-career African plant health researchers, an enthusiastic, skilled staff from the John Innes Centre and converge them on Pwani University, Kilifi County, Kenya. Once you combine the energy and ambition of Pwani University staff, you have all the ingredients necessary to change lives.
AfriPlantSci is a two-week, residential masterclass which aims to build capacity of Sub-Saharan African plant health researchers through a series of lectures, workshops and practical laboratory experiences.
“Pwani University was privileged to have been selected to host the AfriPlantSci training workshop that brought together a broad range of expertise in plant science. The workshop exposed Pwani university staff and students to a lot of collaborative and research opportunities in plant sciences and improved the University’s international visibility”. The Pwani University Deputy Vice Chancellor for research and extension, Prof. Muniru Tsanuo.
After a rigorous selection process, 23 outstanding candidates from 8 African countries were selected from an astonishing 620 applicants.
Before our legs were under the table, we broke the ice. We were to realise that, amongst the many soft and hard skills, the lessons learnt during the interactions between participants and trainers were to be some of the most meaningful and memorable.
Learning core skills
With a packed agenda, workshops started at 8.30am. These took the form of a series of core skills sessions and, later, a chance for the participants to present their work and put into practice what they had learnt.
The manager of the Pwani University Bioscience Research Centre (PUBReC), Prof. Santie de Villiers: “Doing excellent science today depends on much more than just scientific competence, a solid understanding of the field and access to adequate facilities. Good scientific core skills have become critical for students and early career scientists to make an impression in the international research arena. AfriPlantSci presenters really delivered and it was obvious how the participants embraced what they learned and applied it, even within the context of the workshop”.
With the guidance of Dr Rose Kigathi and Associate Professor Levi Yant, participants formulated their own purpose road map, leant how to develop a scientific question and write a project proposal. They also discovered Ikigai – a Japanese concept that roughly translates to “a reason for being”.
Through a wonderfully delivered presentation, Dr Peter Emmrich gave advice on speaking with impact during scientific presentations. These advices were heeded as the quality of participant presentations during subsequent sessions were excellent.
Dr Brande Wulff and Dr Cristobal Uauy provided characterful instruction on scientific and grant application writing to enable the participants to stand out whilst maintaining accuracy. They coupled this with workshops on interview skills and also found the time to host open lectures to the participants and wider Pwani student body. From these sessions, the participants gained a new understanding of how a reviewer might appraise their work.
Each session contained lots of interactive tasks allowing participants to develop ideas and practice their own critical thinking and presentation techniques.
Learning laboratory skills – From the basic to a world first
Participants had varying degrees of experience in a laboratory setting so Dr Anne Edwards and Dr Sian Bray got to work developing core research skills. To build on these skills, Dr Silvia Busoms showed the participants how to use innovative methods to test for abiotic stresses in plants.
During the lab practical ran by Professor Wendy Harwood, students learnt about creating transgenic crops. During this session, the group successfully expressed GFP in Amaranth. To our knowledge, this is the first evidence of such a transformation and it is our intention to publish this finding as a stand-alone figure.
It was clear from participant presentations that many intended to utilise computational approaches within their research. Dr Diane Saunders and Dr Burkhard Steuernagel used the field pathogenomics example, designed by Diane and her team, to quality check sequence and produce a phylogenetic tree using the Linux command line.
In the final practical session, Professor Saskia Hogenhout along with PhD student Roland Wouters challenged the participants to not only find insect pests but to extract DNA from single individuals. Although this was a tough task, several managed to successfully genotype the pest.
Global science and society
Never has the appetite been stronger and the need greater to apply modern bioscience to address the challenges facing food producers in Africa. Despite the challenges, African based research is quickly developing to sustainably raise agricultural productivity. One way to accelerate this process is to ensure researchers can connect to the best global science, wherever they are based.
Chris Darby, the head of Policy and International at JIC explains, “the second UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 of “zero hunger” could not be clearer or more challenging. In Africa, where demographic change and climate change will impose additional burdens, meeting this goal will require significant increases in agricultural productivity. At the John Innes Centre, we believe that research and development are a big part of the meeting that challenge. Where we can, we want to empower African science and African scientists to improve African food production in Africa. The AfriPlantSci initiative allows us to reach some of the best early-career African scientists and forge partnerships for future impact”.
Many social factors also affect local food security status. One such example is the role of gender at both the researcher and the end user levels. Gender affects the way the research is done as well as the people carrying out the research. It affects how individuals will access the end products and ultimately the impact for the end users.
To ensure researchers are mindful of the effects of gender during their programs, gender responsive researchers AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) joined the trainers at the summer school. We were delighted to be joined by Monica Kapiriri who gave a valuable account of the role of gender in science and society.
Steering the ship for AfriPlantSci19
Needless to say, the organisation and running of such an event requires extreme dedication and tireless hours. In the engine room was Dr Tilly Eldridge, the International Development Co-ordinator for African programs at the JIC who, alongside Chris Darby, Angela Payne and Matt Heaton of JIC and ACACIA, ensured the smooth running of an incredibly successful summer school.
Pwani University and PUBReC managed by Prof. Santie de Villers and Prophet
Ingosi Mulega were the perfect hosts and provided wonderful, clean workspaces throughout. Their welcome has endeared Pwani University and its staff to everyone involved in AfriPlantSci 2019.
AfriPlantSci 2019 could not have been the tremendous success it was without the participation of a long list of JIC trainers who very kindly gave their time and shared their knowledge and passion. Thank you to everyone involved.
“As Pwani University we are grateful to have been selected as the venue for the AfriPlantSci Summer School. The experience gathered from the Summer School will have a lasting impact on African Plant Health Research in Pwani University, Kenya and Africa. As an institution we will strive to strengthen our partnership with John Innes Centre and continue to support AfriPlantSci activities”
– Professor Mohamed S. Rajab, Vice-Chancellor, Pwani University.