International ToxScholar Program Expands Boundaries of the Scientific Community

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By Patrick Allard posted 01-21-2013 15:39

  

Note: Deadline for International ToxScholar Grants is February 27, 2013

Environmental challenges and research opportunities in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya

Being engaged in the process of science means that we are part of, and often rely on, a community of like-minded scientists sharing similar goals and visions. Each individual’s research is so focused that it is only as a group that we can generally hope to make significant changes on a broader scale. This reality of the scientific practice is what led me to join the Society of Toxicology in 2008, as a means to find a supportive group of scientists that would help me in my transition from geneticist to aspiring toxicologist. Several years later, the same rationale led me to apply for an International ToxScholar Outreach Grant (ITOG), an initiative from SOT that truly expands the boundaries of our scientific community. Indeed, the ITOG calls for toxicologists to be a bridge between SOT and research communities in developing nations. As part of this program, a scientist visits one or several institutions, learns about the research being performed there, and shares with students and researchers the opportunities offered by the field of Toxicology and its Society. It is an incredible chance to not only reach-out to students and scientists but also to have a better understanding of the research that they perform and of the unique challenges they face. Thus, I am extremely grateful to the Education Committee of SOT for allowing me to be a part of this.

For this mission, I partnered with two organizations that synergize well with the goals of the ITOG, namely the “Horn of Africa Regional Environmental Center” (HOAREC) and the Boston-based organization Seeding Labs. HOAREC promotes environmental research and action in several countries in the east of Africa including Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, the three countries I visited. Seeding Labs, on the other hand, is dedicated to laboratory equipment transfer to public universities in developing nations. Thus, its main goal is to foster research and scientific advancement through the development of research capacity. Seeding Labs also has a Harvard Medical School-sponsored outreach initiative, named the Ambassador Program, well aligned with the goals of the ITOG, which co-sponsored my visits. These included three separate legs: the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, the University of Djibouti in Djibouti, and finally, the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

The Visits

All visits had been planned to include one-on-one or small group meetings with the Dean, Chair, and various faculty members in each department visited. These meetings were then followed by a 45-minute presentation that was divided in four parts.

  1. An introduction encompassing the overarching questions guiding toxicologists and also included local examples of environmental challenges.
  2. A deeper look into the basic principles underlying toxicology (risk, exposure, amount, and response) followed by concrete examples illustrating each principle.
  3. Opportunities offered by SOT for students and faculty, including membership discounts, travel fellowships, continuing education courses, internship opportunities, and other international awards.
  4. And, lastly, information about Seeding Labs, its equipment transfer program and its fellowship program where researchers are sponsored to visit laboratories in the US to receive research and grant writing training.

Following the seminar, the floor was opened to questions and discussions with faculty and also students. Often, the discussions continued more informally with the students after the session had ended.

Addis Ababa
School of Biological Sciences, Addis Ababa University

v2AddisAbaba.jpgMy first stop was Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Stepping out of the plane and into the small taxi that took me to my lodging, I quickly understood what was at stake in this city in terms of environmental challenges: extremely congested roads, old cars running on diesel spewing unfiltered black smoke, and about three or four buildings being built on every block with scaffolding made of tree branches. The population of Addis is clearly booming and although still considered poor, Ethiopia, and Addis in particular, is doing relatively well economically with European and Chinese firms knocking on the door of Ethiopian businesses and investing in its infrastructures. While this makes for an exciting phase of Ethiopian economic development, it also has put a lot of pressure on a fragile environment and has pushed Addis towards the top of the list of the most polluted cities in the world (6th in 2008 according to Forbes). Air pollution, water pollution and terrible waste management have meant a concurrent increase in environmental health related diseases. I understood that quickly: just a few hours in the city and my eyes, nasal passages, mouth, throat, and lungs were painfully irritated from the dust and particles in the air. Opening the tap to wash off this air pollution does not really help as the water has high heavy metal and coliform contamination.

Ethiopian scientists, however, are not helpless spectators of their own environmental demise, but instead are increasingly active in research pertaining to the environment including toxicological research. I had the pleasure to meet with two groups of faculty and students at the University of Addis Ababa, one at the medical school (College of Health Sciences) and the other at the Faculty of Biological Sciences, picture above. Following the presentation, most of the questions centered around a few points: How to make their environment safer, how to develop their toxicological research and, related to that, how to connect and collaborate with researchers in the US to expand on their existing research. Thus, there was a strong interest from the audience to join the Society of Toxicology and, through Toxchange or other means, establish connections with researchers working in air and/or water pollution.

One hurdle in this process became apparent during our discussions—the membership fee, which even at reduced rates was still unaffordable to many, especially students. Furthermore, most people do not have access to credit cards and thus cannot easily pay SOT membership fees. The gap between the interest generated and the ability of the audience to integrate SOT was, unfortunately, a common theme in my visits to Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya.

Djibouti
Presentation to students, University of Djibouti

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Djibouti is a small country nestled at the very edge of Eastern Africa between the countries of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea. It was a French colony until relatively very recent times, 1977. As a consequence, Djibouti has historically relied heavily on France for their research. For example, until a few years ago, students enrolling in a PhD program would expatriate themselves and perform their research in France. Things have changed recently and the University of Djibouti is attempting to develop the capacity to keep their students in the country for the time of their PhD and thus, turn the tide on the brain drain. As part of this endeavor, a major research interest from UoD is environmental research for two reasons: (1) In a country that imports almost all of its goods, safely exploiting the few natural resources they have (for example, algae from the red sea) could turn into profit for research and the country. (2) Djibouti has a fragile arid environment that is put under pressure by the high activity of its several ports, the presence of sizeable French and American military bases, and climate change. Understanding the types of environmental pressure, the effect of these on natural resources and human health is therefore of utmost importance.

The presentation was given in front of a large audience of about 80 students and faculty members. Following the presentation and discussions, I was given a tour of the research facilities that have been built and are in the process of being equipped. I was very impressed by the dedication and resourcefulness of these researchers who have built research laboratories with limited access to resources.

Nairobi
Chemistry Department, University of Nairobi

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The University of Nairobi is the largest University in Kenya and  the home of about 62,000 students. My visit to the University of Nairobi was divided between the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. Nairobi, just  as Addis Ababa, also is under the pressure of environmental challenges such as air and water pollution and climate change. Water pollution in particular is a research priority as are pesticides, heavy metals, coliforms ,and PCBs (from lack of consistent phasing out of PCB-using transformers) that are highly prevalent in Kenya’s river systems. Kenya also presents interesting climate change and health interrelated issues such as increased prevalence of malaria at higher altitudes due to rising temperatures and persistent use of DDT for mosquito control in order to limit malaria spread.

Following my presentation in front of a group of about 30 students from the Department of Chemistry, the students expressed a strong interest in connecting their research, which mainly deals with the analysis of environmental samples, with that of researchers in the US for collaboration.

Highlights and Conclusions from the Visits

  • The research performed in the various departments I visited provided an essential look at the environmental pressure of developing countries on their environment and health.
  • The dedication of students and researchers in all three universities in addressing and solving the environmental challenges that their country faces.
  • The interest from students and faculty in joining SOT and in establishing connections with other SOT members.
  • The potential obstacles (price, access to payment forms) encountered by students, particularly in Ethiopia, that may prevent them from joining SOT.
  • The obvious synergy between SOT outreach programs and Seeding Labs. For example, Seeding Labs offers an Ambassador Program and a Fellowship Program that are highly complementary to the International ToxScholar Outreach Grants and the Global Senior Scholar Exchange Program, respectively, offered by SOT. Furthermore, Seeding Labs provides research equipment to institutions in the developing world where environmental and toxicological research is a major focus.

Web Resources:

Horn of Africa Regional Centre and Network (HoA-REC/N)

Seeding Labs

University Websites:

Addis Ababa University

College of Health Sciences

University of Djibouti

Centre d' Etudes et de Recherche 

University of Nairobi

Department of Chemistry

Department of Geography & Environmental Studies

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