Webinar report: Building connections and developing research in Sub-Saharan Africa

The speakers in September’s #ECRWednesday webinar shared their insights into the issues facing African researchers.
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Moderator: Melissa Chola Kapulu, Postdoctoral Researcher at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Program and member of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group.

Speakers: Carol N. Ibe, PhD Student at the University of Cambridge and Founder of the JR Biotek Foundation; Kevin Marsh, Professor of Tropical Medicine, University of Oxford and Director of the Africa-Oxford Initiative; Catherine Kyobutungi, Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Centre; and Simon Kay, Head of International Operations and Partnerships, Wellcome Trust.

Flourishing research communities can be found in most countries across Africa, and there are a few organisations that provide funding, training and other support to researchers based in Africa. However, as we heard in the webinar, there is also much that individual scientists can do to have an impact and help others to support their community.

Finding a direction

As you start out in your career, it’s fine not to know what you want to do, says Kevin Marsh, but you need to be curious. Ultimately, adds Simon Kay, you are looking for a role in life where you are true to your identity, able to express the real you and get a diverse range of experiences.

Meet people, stay in contact, increase your impact

Catherine Kyobutungi moved from a career as a medical officer into public health because she felt she could save more lives by fixing what was wrong with the healthcare system. But, she advises, there’s a limit to how much impact one person can have, whatever you work on. To make your work more effective, cultivate groups of people that you want to work with and who can help you achieve your goals. Kay recommends forging relationships with the thought leaders in your field. Furthermore, as you move through your career try to keep in contact with the people who you’ve worked with before – you never know when you’ll be able to help each other out.

Be generous, be a role model

As you progress in your career, you become more able to help others. Marsh very much appreciates that some top malaria researchers agreed to work with him early in his career. Having benefited from their help, he now tries to be similarly generous and help other up-and-coming scientists. But it’s not just other scientists you can inspire – by going out and meeting young children, you also have the power to inspire future generations to join the research community. It is especially important, says Marsh, that school children meet young women researchers to challenge stereotypes of who can be a scientist.

Can you help others overcome the issues you faced?

When Carol Ibe moved from Nigeria to the US to do a master’s degree, she realised that her undergraduate course had not fully prepared her for life in research. To reduce the knowledge gap for researchers who might make similar moves in the future, Ibe set up JR Biotek, a charitable organisation that educates, trains and inspires African scientists.

What about when you can’t overcome a challenge?

Luck will have a big influence on your career, so you should not get disheartened when things don’t go well. Keep persevering, recommends Marsh, and you’ll find that persistence eventually pays off – “luck favours the prepared mind”.

Breaking down external barriers…

Research in Africa still faces some large barriers. Ibe suggests that more modern research facilities are needed in Africa to provide scientists with the 21st Century research skills they need to contribute to the continent’s sustainable development. Another infrastructural problem is the lack of partnerships and collaboration between African institutions. More investment is needed, especially from national governments (though the centre of gravity is beginning to shift and investment is growing). Although ultimately support needs to come from within Africa, the African diaspora also has a major role to play to strengthen research capacity building and innovation in Africa. Ibe believes that by contributing knowledge and expertise in specific research areas, supporting projects that facilitate knowledge exchange, and establishing strong and credible partnerships with universities and research institutes in African countries the diaspora can make a much-needed contribution to sustainable development.

… and internal barriers

Kyobutungi sees “barriers in the mind” as a big problem – where people feel they cannot succeed by pursuing research careers so they lose time and get stuck. If someone doesn’t think they can attract grants, then they don’t apply to the right funding courses, so they have limited resources to conduct good research. As a result, the researcher doesn’t publish enough and so doesn’t accumulate a track record that will make them more likely to attract grants… and the cycle goes on. However, there have also been successful initiatives to help young researchers break those barriers and become wildly successful early in their careers.

Working together for the long term

During his career, Kay has worked in many regions across the world and has seen the benefits that a vibrant scientific community can bring to countries. By taking a long-term view of the benefits of investing in science, African governments, funding bodies and researchers can work together to develop the facilities and knowledge needed to support the long-term vibrancy of their countries.

Final thoughts from Melissa Chola Kapulu

“Building connections and developing research in Sub-Saharan Africa is not as straightforward as ABC, but is as achievable as going up Mount Kilimanjaro. Connections and networks are a means to settle into a career path and mentors have a crucial role to play. Passion and charisma is evident from the experiences of the speakers as well as an attitude of not being afraid to venture into the unknown – whether it is drafting letters to world class researchers in Marsh’s instance, moving country and field to establish a career as Kyobutungi highlights, finding solutions to challenges as Ibe did, or contributing to science from the desk instead of the bench as evidenced by Kay’s career path. Whatever the cost, there are networks and in-roads to be established that can enable strong foundations for research on the Continent.”

Note

Unfortunately technical problems meant that this webinar did not record, for which we sincerely apologise.

Further information

Take a look at our post-webinar Twitter chat with the speakers.

Interested in finding out more about opportunities, events and issues that are important for early-career researchers? Sign up to the eLife Early-Career Community newsletter or follow @eLifeCommunity on Twitter.