By André Maia Chagas
Science is great. We get to learn about a topic we love and see things that no one, or very few people, in the world have seen before. We try to find solutions for unanswered problems and push the boundaries of human knowledge a bit further and add a little bit of light to the immense darkness. If we, and the ones that will come after us, do our jobs just right, the things we develop might end up making lives better. These were reasons why I got into science, I thought it would be a good way to combine something I always loved, biology, with something that could potentially improve lives around me. A couple of years into my career, I came to realize that although my heart was in the right place, it was naive to believe that research outcomes would be fast and that the reach of those outcomes would be, as a rule, far reaching. The progress of science is steady, but unfortunately slow, as it takes years, if not decades, before a new discovery becomes a consolidated piece of knowledge, or makes its way into society as a new tool or treatment option.
One of the reasons for this slow pace, is that science is only conducted by a small number of people, in a limited number of places (Figure 1). As it can be seen on the map (Figure 1), scientific distribution is largely uneven throughout the world and uncorrelated with the population of a country, Japan and Nigeria for example, have similar population sizes (~127 and 148 million people, respectively), but very different scientific output records. The results in Nigeria seem to be the rule rather than the exception in the African continent. This uneven distribution leads to, among other things, “Brain drain” where people move out of developing countries in search of better life/work conditions, in an emigration movement that ends up worsening possible development outcomes and global inequality (1). In an interconnected world, we need to remind ourselves that poverty and low living conditions generated by uneven wealth distribution, are not only affecting people living far away, but all of us, and unless we all do something about it, current problems such as the refugee crisis, or the rise of terrorist organizations are only going to worsen (2).
Figure 1: Territory size shows the proportion of all scientific papers published in 2001. Source Worldmapper.org
One possible solution to accelerate scientific development and attempt to aid development in struggling nations, is to improve working conditions for scientists in said nations, both in infrastructure and in technical capacity, in order to make them competitive and attractive in the scientific world. These are the goals of TReND in Africa , an not-for-profit non-governmental organization (NGO) founded by Lucia Prieto, Sadiq Yussuf and Tom Baden, from Lausanne, Kempala and Tübingen, dedicated to improving university level science education and research in Africa. A small team of volunteers consisting of about 50 young researchers, PhD and master students, from a multitude of different countries and backgrounds (Figure 2), organize and run different projects:
- Workshops/summer schools – Several workshops and summer schools have been successfully executed to date, in different subjects. Examples include, but are not limited to, neuroscience and genetics, bioinformatics, scientific writing, computational neuroscience, and building your own lab equipment using open source technologies. The courses are hosted at an Africa institution and receive students from all over Africa and specialists from all over the world for intensive training and exchange generally lasting two to three weeks.
- Building infrastructure – We are constantly accepting functional equipment donation. They are compiled in a database where researchers from African institutions can search for the required item needed to perform a set of experiments. As a condition of receiving the donation, the shipping costs must be paid by the African lab and must commit to make the equipment “open” for fellow researchers who might want to use the equipment as
- Teach in Africa – This program matches researchers from all seniorities who want to spend longer periods (normally one to two semesters) as guests researchers in African institutions teaching classes and doing
- Outreach – Local volunteers, consisting mainly of alumni from our courses, visit schools to show students the wonders and joys of science via interesting experiments and by sharing personal experience as a researcher. The goal is to increase kids awareness of science, breakdown misconceptions and show that “alternative” career pathways exist other than medicine, law, and engineering.
Figure 02: TReND’s network of volunteers, alumni and partner institutions. Modified from www.trendinafrica.org
Although the NGO is relatively young being founded in 2011, some interesting news and results are starting to come about. Some of the highlights include:
- Setting up a confocal microscope in Nairobi.
- An article written by our alumni being featured on the cover of PLoS computational biology.
- Curating an online collection of open source hardware for science together with
- An innovation prize from Cambridge for our open source DIY microscope, the Flypi.
- Several reports from Alumni on the applications they found for the knowledge acquired at our courses and
- A number of outreach events at primary and high schools developed and managed by alumni and volunteers
These achievement demonstrate that TReND’s efforts have a multiplying effect, as the knowledge and equipment we share is used and then further shared with others. It also indicates that we are headed in the right direction, as alumni are able to use previously acquired skills coupled with new tools to become ever more independent and train others to increase their scientific competency. If this multiplying effect takes hold, African scientists will be in a competitive position to impart a big impact on their nations’ futures, as they would be able to produce more transparent, reliable and affordable science, focusing on their own local issues and interests. It would also help reduce the “brain drain” as large migratory movements would seem less appealing and less necessary.
If you’d like more information about TReND, you can find us on different websites: Visit our webpage, facebook group, or twitter. We are always happy to receive emails as well, visit our contact page with any questions, suggestions or inquires.
A final argument for those thinking about contributing to TReND:
It should also be noted that the benefits for volunteers go beyond a sense of accomplishment of having done something good. That is to say, volunteers also gain a broader vision of the world and how people in different cultures tackle varying aspects of life, and how to navigate these cultural differences. By working with TReND, volunteers will certainly have an easier time when working with colleagues and managing teams in their future professional lives.
André graduated from the GTC with a master’s degree in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience and went on for a PhD in behavior and cognition. He also founded the website openeuroscience.com and continuously advocates to make science more open.
- Kasper, J; Bajunirwe, F; 2012 – Brain drain in sub-Saharan Africa: Contributing factors, potential remedies and the role of academic medical Archives of disease in childhood 97:11 973-979