Collaborative Science Symposium in Africa

Inspired by the educational programs of the non-profit organization TReND in Africa1, we – a group of seven volunteers – organized a two-week Collaborative Science Symposium at the Universities of Zambia (UNZA, Zambia) and Nairobi (Kenya). Our team consisted of highly motivated researchers that sought to share their passion for science and higher education. We made it our mission to transfer knowledge and methods, establish long-term mentorship and collaborative relationships with these universities, their students and their scientists. Furthermore, we provided an array of affordable or freely available scientific tools that enable students and scientists to conduct neuroscientific research despite minimal resources in their host countries.

With the help of Ana Silbering (Volunteering Program Coordinator at TReND in Africa), Renee Hartig (new Course Director at TReND in Africa) established communication with the universities willing to host the Collaborative Science Symposium. Silbering acknowledged that: “initiatives like the Collaborative Science Symposium help strengthen and enrich the African scientific landscape in a sustainable way by providing high-quality training locally to the researchers and science teachers of tomorrow.” Our contacts at the University of Zambia (Dr. D. Chuba, Head of the Biological Sciences Department) and the University of Nairobi, Kenya (Paul Rabala, School of Computing & Informatics) were incredibly helpful and we all look forward to our next visit.

Besides the valuable insights and knowledge provided by the course program, students had the opportunity to establish contacts that can last a lifetime. The students linked up with team trainers and established mentorships to help guide the development of their creative research ideas. It was a chance for them to meet potential future collaborators and broaden their vision of science and the possibilities to conduct research within and outside of Africa. To quote Masiye Imikendu, a molecular biology and genetics major at the University of Zambia: “This was a life-changing opportunity and it has expanded my view in terms of science. I just hope and pray that you will surely come back again next year. Zikomo (Thank You).”

Group photo of Zambian students in front of the National Park Munda Wanga. Photo: Mike Hemberger.

Group photo of Kenyan students at Nairobi University Campus. Photo: University staff.

Our team included graduate student researchers from the Max Planck Institutes of Biological Cybernetics (Renee Hartig and Ana Vedoveli) and Intelligent Systems (Rea Antoniou), both in Tübingen; the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research (Ali Karimi and Mike Hemberger) in Frankfurt; as well as Dr. Leonardo Christov-Moore and Professor Pamela Douglas from the Universities of California Los Angeles and Central Florida (U.S.A.).
Travelling to African countries within the malaria zone requires one to take certain precautions – a series of vaccinations, an emergency kit, bug spray and mosquito nets. On top of that, prophylactic anti-malaria medication was ingested on a daily basis and some of our team members reported known side effects of these drugs, such as vivid dreams, dehydration and mild hallucinations. Despite these and many more obstacles (such as heightened safety precautions due to recent terrorist attacks in the city center of Nairobi), our trip was a huge success, full of unexpected and wonderful experiences.

In order to mitigate the lack of resources and infrastructure at the host institutions, we brought several educational resources ourselves, including Foldscopes2 (a $1 origami-style high magnification microscope), two SpikerBoxes3 (a low cost DIY bio-amplifier for electrophysiological recordings), a hardcover book4 of original drawings from Ramon y Cajal, as well as a portable projector allowing us to set up a lecture hall at any moment. Financial support to students in Zambia requiring public transport to travel to the University from outside the Lusaka city center was crowd-sourced through social media. The remaining crowd-sourced funds were used to donate 20 Foldscopes to the University of Zambia.

Building Foldscopes to visualize single neuron morphology. Left: Mike supervising a group of students building Foldscopes during their lunch break. Photo: Renee Hartig. Right: brightfield image of rat hippocampal neurons stained using the Golgi method. Image taken with iPhone adapter for Foldscopes by Mike Hemberger. Staining by Marcel Lauterbach.

The university students that participated in the symposium had the opportunity to encounter a broad overview of scientific theory, methods and techniques, with a focus on biology and neuroscience. Participants ranged from students of natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics) to computer science students. We offered hands-on sessions on how to develop valid experimental designs, acquire and analyze the necessary scientific data, report results and seek funding, while providing guidance for students to develop their own experiments and improve their academic writing skills. During the practical sessions, our team aimed to address the lack of hands-on experience of African students by highlighting the use of low-cost materials to address scientific objectives. For example, we used (i) Foldscopes to visualize the morphology of single neurons, (ii) SpikerBoxes to record action potentials from a looming sensitive neuron of locusts5 and (iii) extracted DNA from peaches using only household materials. Overall, the participants learned about the various scientific techniques to gather empirical evidence and the seminal concepts behind objective scientific evaluation that will support them in contributing to the ever-growing fields of science. Our students were highly motivated, constantly engaged and incredibly friendly and hospitable.

Throughout the course of the symposium, participants also had the opportunity to draft a research proposal or create a conference abstract. These proposals were shaped and developed by the students and researchers, and continue to be improved in online coordination with members of our team. Several of these research ideas are now moving forward in the form of grant applications and preliminary data collection.

Our week in Zambia culminated with a trip to a nearby safari park (Munda Wanga) where the students presented their grant proposals.

Extracting DNA from peaches with the Zambian students – whoever knew you could do that with household items. Waving hi on the right is James Nkhoswe. Photos: Mike Hemberger.

There is much to be gained from such a journey. Each member of our team handled creative problem-solving on a low budget and received daily inspiration from the participants. It was a wonderful experience to collaborate with our partners in Africa. We are still in contact with Zambian students like Raphael Sage and James Nkhoswe, who drafted excellent research proposals with potentially high impact on Zambian economy. At the moment, our team supports James Nkhoswe in applying for scholarships to study abroad. His main wish is to come to Germany to study environmental science. He is aspiring towards a graduate degree and a chance to learn from a Western university, and eventually, to bring those new skills back to Africa.

We look forward to repeating and expanding on this endeavor in upcoming years. Indeed, this course will be developed into a regular program, further solidifying collaborations between scientists and students in Africa and the Western world. Another idea, inspired by a fortuitous meeting with a group of young students from the St. Mary’s School for Girls during a private safari on our last day in Africa, is to broaden this program to science education in African schools in the future.

If you have been inspired, intrigued or genuinely interested and would like to get involved, do not hesitate to write us at sciencesymposium19@gmail.com. We are looking for new team members to join our next expedition in January 2020.

Acknowledgements

We thank Gilles Laurent for providing material and ideas. We thank Philip Laserstein at Mathworks for arranging a shipment of merchandise donations. We additionally express our gratitude for the crowd-sourced donations we received to support student transportation costs during the program. The team’s travel and accommodation costs were financially supported by the Max Planck Society, and in the case of our American collaborations, by the University of Central Florida. We would also like to express our appreciation for the commitment expressed by our contacts at the University of Zambia (Dr. D. Chuba, Head of the Biological Sciences Department) and the University of Nairobi, Kenya (Paul Rabala, School of Computing & Informatics).

Resources:

1 – www.trendinafrica.org

2 – www.foldscope.com (we thank David Hain for his recommendation)

3 – www.backyardbrains.com (we thank Gilles Laurent for his generous donation of two SpikerBoxes)

4 – The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Ramon y Cajal, ISBN 1419722271

5 – Hatsopoulos, N., Gabbiani, F., Laurent, G., 1995. Elementary computation of object approach by wide-field visual neuron. Science 270, 1000–1003.

Renée Hartig is currently a GTC doctoral student in the Laboratory of Functional and Comparative Neuroscience with Dr. Henry Evrard at the MPI in Tübingen.

Mike Hemberger is currently a doctoral student in the Department for Neural Systems and Coding with Prof. Dr. Gilles Laurent at the MPI for Brain Research in Frankfurt am Main.

Ali Karimi is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Connectomics at the MPI for Brain Research in Frankfurt working with Prof. Dr. Moritz Helmstaedter.

Leo is a postdoctoral fellow at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, where he works with Jonas Kaplan and Antonio Damasio, studying the neural mechanisms underlying human relations, including empathy, social cognition and emotional intelligence.


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