On the evening before the goat roast, Martin Mwangi Thuo’s mind was racing. Would the dark storm clouds that were moving in ruin the festivities? Would there be enough food to feed the roughly 50 guests he was expecting? How in the world would he pull off roasting a whole goat in his tiny backyard? After all, this wasn’t Kenya; this was Cambridge, Mass.
But Kenya is never far from Thuo’s thoughts. Just eight years ago, the Kenyan native was in Nairobi working toward a master’s degree in chemistry at Kenyatta University, the second largest university in Kenya. He remembers his analytical chemistry professor drawing out in great detail a gas chromatography instrument. “I was supposed to imagine injecting the sample. It was so abstract,” Thuo says. “But that was the best my professor could do because he had nowhere to go in the whole country to show me one.”
Now a postdoc in the lab of George M. Whitesides at Harvard University, Thuo is hoping that through his connections between his former professors at Kenyatta University and a small nonprofit organization called Seeding Labs, the next generation of students in Kenya—and eventually the rest of the developing world—will not only have seen scientific instruments, they will have had experience using them.
This past summer, through contacts Thuo helped establish, four faculty members from Kenyatta University’s chemistry and pharmacy departments spent 10 weeks shadowing scientists at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, in Cambridge. The training program, which is in its first year, is part of a larger effort by Seeding Labs to outfit labs in developing countries with equipment donated from the U.S., train scientists on how to use the equipment, and ultimately help them develop connections with scientists in the U.S. that will yield fruitful collaborations.
“When you’re a scientist in Africa, you’re isolated from the rest of the world,” says Thuo, who began volunteering with Seeding Labs in 2009 and is now on the organization’s board of directors. “There’s desire and there’s talent, but that talent often dies out because of a lack of opportunity and a lack of resources. Seeding Labs is coming at an essential time.”
“There’s a lot of interconnection between people in the sciences, and scientists in the developing world don’t always get that,” says Nina Dudnik, founder and chief executive officer of Cambridge-based Seeding Labs. “We’re trying to combat that professional isolation.”
Thuo hosted the goat roast in July, halfway through the fellows’ 10-week experience, as a way of celebrating a milestone for both Kenyatta University and Seeding Labs. In Kenya, “we mark something great in one’s life by having a goat roast,” said Sauda Swaleh, a senior lecturer in the department of chemistry at Kenyatta University and one of the four Kenyan fellows, on the morning of the roast.
“This year is a turning point for Seeding Labs,” Dudnik says. “This piece we’re starting now, this connection that the fellows are creating with their colleagues in the U.S., helps increase the caliber and the breadth of science everywhere. There’s nothing like meeting somebody from another part of the world who you can connect to immediately on a professional basis to start changing your mind about what are interesting questions to ask.”
Dudnik launched Seeding Labs in 2002 while earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology at Harvard Medical School. She got the idea to collect surplus lab equipment after serving for a year as a Fulbright fellow in the Ivory Coast, where she observed the extreme scarcity of even the most basic supplies. Researchers routinely washed and reused disposable pipette tips for months at a time, she says.
After returning to the U.S., Dudnik learned that many organizations were collecting and distributing surplus hospital equipment to developing countries. “I could not find any large-scale, institutionalized programs or organizations dedicated to research equipment,” she says. Dudnik saw a niche and a need.
At Harvard Medical School, Dudnik enlisted the help of her fellow students to scour labs around campus for surplus equipment and to inventory, clean, repair, and package the equipment for shipping.
The grassroots effort soon outgrew Harvard Medical School and spread to other schools in the Northeast. “Those of us who work in labs know how much excess equipment and reagents are just sitting around gathering dust,” says Amanda Nottke, a graduate student involved in the Harvard Medical School chapter of Seeding Labs. “People put things in the hallways and just hope someone will pick them up.”
“I think throughout the country now, the mentality of being able to reuse and recycle is very strong,” says Xun Wang, another student volunteer at Harvard Medical School. “For me, one of the really satisfying things about working with Seeding Labs is seeing something that I am doing coming to fruition so fast.”
In 2008, Seeding Labs became a nonprofit organization, and Dudnik hired a full-time operations manager to help scale up the business. Today, Seeding Labs has student chapters in Boston and New York City and is collaborating with numerous companies around Boston, including Novartis, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and Biogen Idec, to supply surplus equipment.
The organization has so far equipped nearly 30 science labs at universities in 16 Latin American and African countries. It helped a professor in Chile furnish his lab after a fire, for example. It also helped a professor who had moved from the U.S. back to Argentina furnish his entire lab. Seeding Labs is now focusing on building capacity in East Africa and recently sent a 40-foot cargo container filled with lab equipment to Kenyatta University.
At Novartis this summer, in addition to doing research, the scientists from Kenyatta University participated in workshops on grant writing, curriculum development, and other professional development skills. “I hope once we go back, we will be able to share with the rest of the university what we have learned,” says fellow Hudson N. Nyambaka, a senior lecturer in the department of chemistry at Kenyatta University.
He explains that because of the lack of equipment, graduate students at Kenyatta University are routinely sent to other institutions to complete their research. In his own research, he regularly sends samples to other institutions to be analyzed.
“The proportion of students who must go and do part of their research elsewhere is 100%,” says Nicholas K. Gikonyo, one of the fellows and chair of the department of pharmacy and complementary/alternative medicine at Kenyatta University. “Research done within the institution is very important. Students can see the research and get motivated. For faculty, you’re able to monitor what the students are doing. Finally, it’s about ownership of the research. When you send a sample elsewhere, and that chemical is being analyzed by another person, you lose a lot.”
Evans O. Changamu, another fellow and a lecturer at Kenyatta University, says the experience at Novartis has opened his eyes to new directions in his research. “The research I’ve been involved in has been academic, and it ends there,” he says. “But I have another dimension now. Now, I know that I can look for a way of getting it to the people who need it. I can now think of it not just ending at the publication. I can think of what else I can do.”
The experience of mentoring a Kenyan scientist has had an impact on the Novartis mentors. “We take for granted all of the things that we have and the way that we work,” says Jennifer Marlowe, a senior investigating scientist at Novartis, who mentored Swaleh. “I think that learning about how things are structured in other places certainly lends valuable perspective to us.”
“We are a global company, and it is critical for our scientists to get exposed to research efforts and medical practices in the developing world,” says Brigitta Tadmor, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Novartis. “This helps us better understand and address patient needs in these parts of the world.”
The Kenyan fellows note that they must shoulder the responsibility to improve the research capabilities in their own country. “We don’t expect people to come up with solutions for us,” Swaleh says. “It’s up to us as members of the chemistry department at Kenyatta University to look for solutions that can help our own people.”
Dudnik believes that providing equipment is just the first step to empowering scientists in the developing world. “It’s necessary but not sufficient,” she says. “The equipment will hopefully form a lasting connection between people.”
Sometimes, however, good intentions can be shortsighted. Thuo points out that in the past, Kenyatta University received a 200-MHz nuclear magnetic resonance instrument. “It came as a part of a big donation,” Thuo says. “But to be honest, it was useless. The people who were given that NMR ended up shipping their samples overseas anyway because the instrument was not powerful enough.”
Typically, what happens is that “somebody decides that this is good for Africa, and they ship it to Africa,” Thuo says. “But when you engage the people, when you let them think about what they want, they will surprise you.”
Rather than sending equipment that’s available, Seeding Labs asks the recipients for a list of the things they need. “Every piece of equipment that we got through Seeding Labs is what we requested,” Swaleh says. “The efforts will go a long way because we will definitely use the equipment.”
“Seeding Labs is not meant to provide services that I think are useful for others,” Dudnik says. “It’s meant to provide services that the scientists in the developing world are asking me for.”
Dudnik has set some ground rules for what equipment the organization will accept. “We don’t take things that don’t work or are obsolete,” she says. “It’s a matter of respect and consideration for the scientists who are getting the equipment. We can’t send them things that are so obsolete that they’ll never be able to get meaningful use out of them.”
But Changamu says that even broken equipment could serve a useful purpose. “We can still use it as a demo for teaching,” he notes.
Still, equipment in the best condition will eventually break down. “One of the things I’m looking for now are some partners to help us train technicians in Kenya to maintain the equipment,” Dudnik says.
Another challenge will be to maintain the connections that the fellows developed this summer. “The real work begins when they get home,” says David Qualter, operations manager for Seeding Labs. “They have to go back and share what they have learned and continue with these connections.”
Meanwhile, Thuo continues to raise awareness among his colleagues about the needs of chemists in the developing world. He’s even inspired postdoc Ludovico Cademartiri, who is also in the Whitesides lab, and Kyle Bishop, a former postdoc in the Whitesides lab and now an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Pennsylvania State University, to develop a curriculum in nanochemistry for Kenyatta University, which Changamu will teach next year.
“There’s a lack of knowledge about the academic community in Africa because there are a lot of stereotypes and a lot of assumptions that are being made about how academia works in Africa,” Cademartiri told C&EN during the goat roast. “I think this is an enormous opportunity for academia to realize that there is a source of students there just waiting to be shown the opportunities that are available for them.”
Thuo hopes that his efforts to bring scientists in the U.S. and Kenya together will play a small role in making this happen.
At the end of the goat roast, after the last guest had gone home, Thuo reflected on the success of the day. The rain had held off, the guests had plenty to eat, and Cambridge turned out to be the perfect place to bring everyone together.