A move to give African scientists recycled lab equipment has created an opportunity for networking and collaboration, says Vijaysree Venkatraman.
[BOSTON] Eleven years ago, as a Fulbright scholar, Nina Dudnik did a year-long research stint at the Africa Rice Center in Côte d'Ivoire, where her colleagues meticulously rinsed out disposable items, such as pipette tips, so they could re-use them. Soon after, when she went to graduate school at Harvard University, United States, she saw that serviceable equipment and laboratory equipment were routinely thrown out whenever laboratories upgraded their inventories.
Along with a small band of fellow students who had also worked in resource-poor laboratories, Dudnik kept her eyes peeled for discarded equipment such as chromatographs, microscopes, centrifuges and glassware. They soon sent their first shipments to Guatemala and Paraguay.
When Dudnik graduated with a PhD in molecular biology, she received a fellowship from a non-profit organisation (NGO), Echoing Green, to set up Seeding Labs as an NGO, and opted to become a full-time social entrepreneur instead of pursuing a career at the bench.
In 2008, she formally launched Seeding Labs in Boston, using surplus laboratory equipment in the United States, from both industry and academia, to enable world-class science in the developing world. The organisation also helps to forge links between young scientists in those countries — its current focus is Sub-Saharan Africa — and researchers in Boston, a hub for the life sciences.
Laboratories in the developing world often lack the sophisticated equipment of their western counterparts. "But first-rate scientific talent is everywhere," says Dudnik, who has made it her mission to level the playing field for talented individuals who lack access to research tools.
Seeding a revolution
Other organisations already send recycled equipment to hospitals in developing countries — the Sustainable Sciences Institute, also in the United States, for example, caters for public health institutes. And there are individual initiatives to send equipment to chemistry and biology laboratories.
"Many individual scientists have collaborators or acquaintances in the developing world and will use their own surplus equipment to help equip these labs," says Dudnik. "But ours is probably the most organised large-scale programme to address lab equipment needs."
Seeding Labs receives wish lists from science departments abroad. Student volunteers at US universities inventory, test, pack and ship the items, keeping costs low. Recipients pay a fraction of the equipment's cost to offset the logistical expenses — although Seeding Labs refuses to say how much — and, as buyers, they assume responsibility for setting up and maintaining the equipment.
Recipients are also given some guidance on the set-up, says David Qualter, operations manager at Seeding Labs. "If we don't know the answer to a question, we may know someone who does. We also connect recipients to equipment manufacturers so they can follow up directly at some point if the need arises," he adds.
Students at Kenyatta University in Kenya now have better access to equipment
This mode of operation is very different from the dump-and-go model of global aid, says Martin Mwangi, a postdoctoral associate at Harvard University who is on the Seeding Labs board of directors.
But using wish lists has its own limitations, he concedes. For example, researchers sometimes ask for obsolete items because that is all they are familiar with.
To upgrade expectations and expose researchers in developing countries to modern equipment and techniques, Seeding Labs joined forces with the pharmaceutical giant Novartis to create a summer fellowship programme for scientists from Sub-Saharan Africa. The scheme was launched last year and runs alongside the equipment programme.
Visiting fellows are given individual mentors and gain exposure to current tools and techniques, helping them tackle research problems that are important to their communities back home.
"A person who understands both parts of the world well is invaluable when it comes to choosing the right candidates for the fellowship," says Brigitta Tadmor, global head of diversity at Novartis. Mwangi, for example, has a master's degree in chemistry from Kenyatta University in Kenya and a PhD from the University of Iowa, in the United States.
The first Seeding Labs–Novartis fellows were four mid-career academics from Kenyatta University, including Mwangi's analytical chemistry lecturer.
"He used to draw a diagram on the board to show our class how the gas chromatograph works," Mwangi recalls. One shipment from Seeding Labs changed all that — now students run experiments on the chromatograph.
Back in 2009, when Dudnik visited the newly built laboratories at Kenyatta University's pharmacy department, they were practically empty. "A little over a year later, they were full of glassware and equipment for the students — all sent by Seeding Labs with the help of institutions in Boston," she says. This is Seeding Labs' biggest outfitting success to date.
Another item, a mass spectrometer, has triggered a three-way collaboration on a tissue engineering project, involving scientists from Kenya, Norway and the United States.
As a graduate student in Iowa, Mwangi teamed up with a visiting professor from Norway on a project that used Mwangi's expertise in chemistry research and the professor's knowledge of clinical research. The fellowship programme later created an opportunity that did not exist before — a chance to include fresh Kenyan talent in the collaboration.
More than US$1 million worth of equipment was sent to research institutes in 16 countries
All that was lacking was the equipment. "Now that our colleagues at Kenyatta University can establish cell cultures and perform analysis, they are active participants in this cutting-edge project," says Mwangi.
This year the Seeding Labs–Novartis programme has nine fellows from two African nations. They are from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana and the University of Bamako in Mali, neither of which has bought equipment from Seeding Labs yet.
"Their work at Novartis will expose them to new techniques or equipment, besides expanding their research aims. Together, these experiences could lead them to identify equipment they do not have that will be useful to them in future research and in their teaching," says Dudnik.
Rita Dickson, one of the Ghanaians, isolates bioactive compounds from medicinal herbs but lacks the spectroscopic tools to determine their structures. She currently gets her nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy results from South Africa. She says she dreams of a time when Ghanaian researchers do not have to send compounds overseas for analysis. "Then we can stop worrying about things like samples getting lost in the mail."
A global movement
Seeding Labs has so far sent shipments worth more than US$1 million to research institutes in 16 countries. It has grown beyond Harvard, with student chapters at Yale School of Medicine, Boston University, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, among others.
Companies such as Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Thermo Fisher Scientific also contribute equipment.
Seeding Labs is also on the lookout for new partners to train people on the ground in equipment maintenance and repair. "We can try to request vendors to engage in pro bono work," says Tadmor. "We have to ensure that the equipment doesn't end up like a museum piece."
Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University, says: "The biggest challenge facing Seeding Labs is being able to operate at a scale that makes a discernible difference". Currently, funds come from fellowships, corporate sponsors and individual donors.
"Securing long-term and stable funding would solve this problem," he says.
"Ultimately, the goal of Seeding Labs is to build a global movement of scientists for scientists," says Dudnik, so no motivated researcher needs to work in isolation because of their location.
As a member of the organisation's advisory board, Juma points out that such networks can only develop if scientists have the equipment they need. "The networking that arises from such connections will outlast the lifespan of the equipment donated to Africa," he says.