Strengthening South-South dialogue at DELTAS Africa Scientific Conference 2019
09 Oct 2019
In an attempt to foster south-south research collaborations, every year India Alliance and the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) send some of their Fellows/Grantees to each other’s annual meetings. India Alliance’s Annual Fellows Meeting in May 2019 saw the participation of representatives from DELTAS (Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science), Africa. The 4th edition of the DELTAS Africa annual meeting was held in Dakar, Senegal from 15th to 17th July 2019 under the theme of A Critical Mass: Developing World-Class Research Leaders. In this piece, India Alliance Fellows who attended this years’ DELTAS meeting share their experience and key take-away from this meeting.
Dr. Shweta Khandelwal, PHFI, Gurgaon
Intermediate Fellow, Clinical and Public Health Research
Participation in DELTAS meeting not only exposed us to a high quality academic treat that included research talks, panel discussions and keynote lectures from experts from diverse settings but also gave us ample opportunity to interact and network with emerging and established scientists from all over the globe.
In the opening ceremony, the Minister Aminata Sall Diallo, Special Advisor to the Minister of Higher Education, Research & Innovation, Senegal for a large part of her talk, dwelled upon the dwindling number of women scientists/researchers in Africa especially as they move to the leadership positions. This is something, which is universally echoed, and being passionate about capacity building in nutrition, this stayed with me and will stay with me for a long time. This conflict between career and biological clock, particularly in women, has always engaged me and inspires me to work towards strengthening their skill set in a way that makes them indispensable in high-level jobs or leadership positions.
As a public health and nutrition researcher, I was also fascinated to see the work (through posters and talks) on nutrition and the association of diet with various non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases. For example, one poster that I had the chance to review reflected on red meat consumption and hypertension in African region. Additionally, I got to see a lot of work on basic sciences around prevention and management of malaria, HIV and other viral diseases. It’s always a delight to experience first-hand (as compared to reading/learning from books); I had the opportunity to experience the diet/cuisine of people in West Africa. While exploring the Goree island, a famous tourist spot in Senegal, I found that most local cuisines and drinks are freshly prepared and consumed. Women are active participants in the formal and informal workforce while also managing children. The breath-taking beaches, beautiful sunsets, clean(er) air, nice weather were all cherries on the pie!
Dr. Shankar Manoharan, IIT Jodhpur
Early Career Fellow, Basic Biomedical Research
Considering the high burden of infectious diseases in Africa, the unwavering focus on infectious diseases at the DELTAS meeting was not surprising. However, a pleasant surprise was the fact that the organisers had set aside time for breakout sessions on non-communicable diseases, mental health, neglected tropical diseases, and the one health concept. Of particular interest to me was a study assessing the prevalence of drug-resistant bacteria in bush meat that surprisingly reported high levels of drug resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae among other bacteria in bush meat. Besides raising food safety concerns about consumption of bush-meat, this study left the audience wondering about how drug resistance has even made its way to bacteria in wild animals. Other interesting projects were focused on surveys of antimicrobial resistance in milk products, fungal metabolites as sources of novel antimicrobials, biofilm formation in uropathogenic E. coli, urovirulence factors, multidrug resistance-associated mutations in Plasmodia, and a methods comparison study for identification of the hospital-associated pathogen Acinetobacter baumannii. I also had the unexpected pleasure and learning experience of judging a subset of the posters at the meeting.
One of the key takeaways for me from this meeting were the words of wisdom from the Nobel Prize winning scientist, Prof. Martin Chalfie about preprint journal clubs, which he holds regularly in his lab and encouraged the audience to do as an exercise with their research groups. He spoke about how his team critically reviews preprints, compiles the reviews, and shares it with the authors of the preprint to help them improve their work. He opined that such a ‘good sense of community’ needs to be built globally. Needless to say that this fantastic idea will be implemented in my research group as well.
The panel discussion on ‘Research Ecosystems’ offered another major takeaway. The discussion revolved around building healthy research ecosystems, where scientists are enabled to focus largely on their research question. Highlighting the importance of research management systems in building such ecosystems, one of the experts suggested that such systems should be in place for any Institution in order to qualify for funding. This is something that I have started advocating for upon my return.
Overall, the experience at this meeting has transformed many of my views on what should be the research agenda of a country. This transformation would not have been possible but for the generous funding and efforts of the India Alliance team, the hospitality of the DELTAS Africa 2019 hosts, and my colleagues, who accompanied me on this trip.
IA Fellows with Prof Martin Chalfie
Dr. Suparna Ghosh-Jerath, IIPH New Delhi
Intermediate Fellow, Clinical and Public Health Research
The objective of the DELTAS conference 2019 was to assemble DELTAS scholars, trainees, and practitioners carrying out research and other collaborative activities in several thematic areas. The sessions at the meeting included technical sessions divided into spotlight sessions and sessions on various thematic areas. Some other interesting sessions were on promotion of scientific culture like participation and commitment of a woman of science, community and public engagement at The African Academy of Science, and leadership development. The poster sessions also provided an exhaustive overview of research methodologies and key findings of specific research questions that the young post graduate students, mid-career researchers, and experts from across sub-Saharan Africa are trying to answer. The keynote speakers presented some excellent talks. Notably, the talk of Noble Laureate Martin Chelfie on green fluorescent protein was quite intriguing as it enlightened us about the values, principles, and qualities of a researcher especially a lead researcher.
The core focus of this conference was on infectious diseases—the pathogens, genetics, clinical studies—with a few sessions on nutrition, public health implication of infectious diseases, and public health approaches to address these diseases. The session on “One health” approach that integrates human and animal health sector together to address infectious diseases interested me the most. Under this approach, I feel that the nutrition component, especially the food systems and the food environment, can be strongly integrated and the synergy between humans, animals and their food sources can be further explored.
After my presentation on the food environment of indigenous tribal communities of India, I received queries from a group working on One Health at Swiss Centre for Scientific Research in Côte d'Ivoire (CSRS Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques en Cote d'Ivoire) on assessment of food security as part of their research work, and there has been subsequent engagement like sharing of publications and information.
Listening to and interacting with senior researchers with years of experience, to see the sincerity and curiosity of young researchers as they presented their research, innovations in their research methodologies and study findings, and the exchange of ideas was very enlightening. Understanding the research environment of low resource set up in sub-Saharan Africa and how technology can be transferred across the globe was quite intriguing.
Dr. Kushi Anand, IISc Bengaluru
Early Career Fellow, Basic Biomedical Research
The DELTAS meeting provided a wonderful platform to all the participants to discuss their progress and the implementation and challenges of global public health-related research in their respective countries. In addition, the conference facilitated a conducive environment to explore possibilities for collaboration. The topics presented and discussed at the meeting ranged from good financial grant practice, inactivation of pathogens in ecological sanitation, to non-communicable and neglected tropical diseases such as the sleeping sickness eradication plan.
The talks presented by Dr. Thumbi Ndung’u from the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV on “Viable approaches to HIV cure in Africa” and by Tuelo Mogashoa, a research fellow funded by SANTHE, on “Detectionof extensively drug resistance tuberculosis” were of great interest to me. Similar to the Indian scenario, African population with drug resistance tuberculosis and HIV also have low survival rates. HIV and TB disproportionately affect sub-Saharan Africa, but Africans are under-represented in the scientific effort to tackle these issues. Therefore, a shared understanding of these diseases in the context of barriers to early detection, diagnosis, and treatment is highly justified. With this background, I had several productive discussions with DELTAS fellows working in the area of HIV and tuberculosis. Combinatorial approaches like early ART treatment in combination with immune modulators (TLR agonists) and specific antiviral-immune agents (bNAbs) may be more likely to result in in long-term remission. Further, the detection of previously undetected XDR-TB isolates among multidrug resistance TB isolates is an alarming situation in both India and Africa. There is an urgent need to include a first and second line drug susceptibility testing to enable rapid selection of effective drug therapies.
I was particularly impressed and stuck by the motivation and enthusiasm of people for collaborative, theme-based, and clinically-driven research programs run in the African subcontinent. It was an amazing learning experience.
It was also an absolute pleasure to hear Prof. Martin Chalfie talk about importance of simple observation, perseverance, and the do-not-give-up attitude in science. In his words “Scientific inquiry starts with observation. The more one can see, the more one can investigate.”
Finally, I was very impressed to see how this giant DELTAS Africa programme has been able to build admirable scientific citizenship with 276 new research collaborations,130 engagement activities, 162 leadership development workshops and 72 policy activities. More than 1500 PhD or master students are being trained through this programme with the gender parity ratio of 48:52. It is an excellent model and worth emulating for Pan-India initiatives where the delegates, young scholars, policymakers, and scientists from different funding agencies in India assemble under one roof at least once a year. We have to recognise and realise that for research to achieve real impact it needs to be communicated to policymakers and the public. Public engagement will be crucial to elevate their awareness and interest in science, which increases the possibilities of approval for new health policies and treatments.
Dr. Gagandeep Kaur Walia, PHFI, Gurgaon
Early Career Fellow, Clinical and Public Health Research
DELTAS Annual Conference was a huge platform attended by a large number of delegates from African and other countries. It was a pleasure to witness this huge gathering of researchers from different levels who exchanged their research work, challenges and discussed the solutions and future action points to address public health issues.
Africa and India do share very common public health issues around both non-communicable and communicable diseases including climatic changes, rapid urbanization, and other socio demographic indices. Apart from these common driving risk factors, India and Africa share the issue of limited resources and infrastructure and therefore conducting collaborative research and learning from the experience of each other can very well provide solutions to address the public health concerns in both Africa and India.
The scientific conference was inaugurated in the presence of government officials, which was very promising and is always desired by the public health researchers working on policy advocacy. The representation from Health Ministry and Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovations definitely indicated the interest for translation of research evidence to policy reforms. It was very impressive to learn about the high-quality research being carried out by young fellows in these developing African countries. The updates from various programs and initiatives were also very promising for international collaborative efforts.
I felt that majority of the research is still on non-communicable diseases in Africa, and thus there were many breakout sessions focused on major communicable diseases and around the One Health concept for addressing the tropical diseases using a comprehensive, holistic approach. India Alliance fellows working in the area of infectious diseases should definitely collaborate and share their experiences with the DELTAS fellows to identify common solutions.
In addition to communicable diseases, I was personally very happy to attend the sessions on non-communicable diseases. I did not come across much work on genetic epidemiology, which is my own area of research, although there is high-end research in basic science around genomics and proteomics. Having said that, I did receive few requests for collaboration after my talk on Mendelian randomization, which is of interest to researchers of both communicable and non-communicable diseases
Finally, it was our pleasure to listen to the Noble Laureate, Martin Chalfie, who narrated his research work and career journey in the most beautiful way—a fantasy story. His lecture clearly showed that passion, perseverance, creativity, and finally effective communication are the key to success in science and research!
IA Fellows (clock-wise) - Shankar Manoharan, Suparna Ghosh-Jerath, Shweta Khandelwal, Gagandeep Kaur Wali, Alphonsus Neba (Deputy Director Programmmes, Science Support and Systems at African Academy of Sciences), Kushi Anand