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Charity founded by Queen Mary academic holds first online conference to help fight inequality in science

DrosAfrica, a grassroots biomedical charity, has held its first online workshop to help establish a highly skilled community of Drosophila African scientists and further biomedical research.

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Members of the Drosophila Laboratory, University of Ibadan, Nigeria participating. Credit: DrosAfrica
Members of the Drosophila Laboratory, University of Ibadan, Nigeria participating. Credit: DrosAfrica

DrosAfrica, a grassroots biomedical charity, has held its first online workshop to help establish a highly skilled community of African scientists and further biomedical research.

The three-day workshop, which took place on 12-14 October, brought together international experts to discuss topics such as nutrition, cancer, cell division and aging.

DrosAfrica was founded by Dr Isabel Palacios, a Lecturer in Cell Biology at the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. It aims to create an interconnected community of biomedical scientists and African institutes to run impactful projects using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model system.

The charity adopts a workshop-led approach to encourage the exchange of ideas and experiences between the participants and workshop lecturers. Workshops consist of a mix of lectures and hands-on laboratory sessions, which cover the basics of husbandry and genetics of Drosophila and their application to biomedical problems of interest. Since the first workshop in 2013, the number of applications for participating has increased steadily over the years to around 500.

Dr Palacios said, “Unfortunately due to the pandemic it was not possible to travel to Africa for our workshop this year, so we decided on a virtual alterative so we could continue to build and nurture our Drosophila research community. It is incredibly important for the workshops to continue despite the current situation, so we can continue to help fight inequality in science and to reduce the science gap between developed and developing countries.”

“The online workshop was a great success, and I’d like to thank all those involved, especially our speakers and DrosAfrica collaborator Ross Cagan, Regius Professor of Precision Medicine at the University of Glasgow who co-organised and chaired the event.”

How did DrosAfrica come about

Although Africa represents 15 per cent of the global population, it generates less than 2 per cent of the world’s research output. One of the reasons behind this is that there are very few researchers - Africa has around 200 researchers per million people, while the UK, for example, has 4,000.

Whilst teaching on a course at Kampala International University, Uganda, Queen Mary researcher Isabel Palacios with colleagues María D. Martín-Bermudo and Marta Vicente-Crespo observed the lack of support for talented scientists and wanted to do something to help.

In 2013 they founded DrosAfrica to unlock the untapped potential of these researchers and build a better future for communities and the continent in general, by using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster for biomedical studies.

Drosophila is a cheap but powerful system for modelling human diseases and insect transmitted infections, and can allow for rapid and thorough screening of potential treatments. As Drosophila are used for scientific research worldwide, they also provide an opportunity for African scientists to become part of a global research community, in the absence of high levels of government funding to support biomedical research.

Impact and next steps

So far the charity has trained over 100 people from nine institutions across eight different African countries including Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and Tunisia.

Several participants have gone on to establish their own fly labs to help develop the next generation of African biomedical scientists. For example following hosting a DrosAfrica workshop in Ibadan, Nigeria, Dr. Amos O Abolaji gained university support to set up a fly research group (10–15 researchers) and host training for around 25 students.

The trickledown effects of the workshops are seen in schools too. Participants are using the new knowledge and skills they gained in the workshops as outreach activists. After attending a workshop, Rashidatu Abdulazeez organized several outreach activities in schools in Nigeria and created Droso4Nigeria, a hub for scientists and outreach programmes dedicated to fruit fly research.

The charity has also created excellent networking opportunities for African researchers, exemplified by the foundation of the African Society for Drosophila Research and a recent publication the result of a collaboration between researchers at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and Kampala International University, Uganda.

Dr Isabel Palacios, said: “We’ve achieved so much already through DrosAfrica, but we know it has so much more potential to transform the lives of African researchers and the communities they support.

“Our long-term goal is to develop research centres in each African region to attract small groups of scientists to run high impact biomedical projects in a competitive manner. This will help provide first-class training to African researchers across the continent. We’re now working to establish a consortium between African and European institutions to facilitate the launch of a fruit fly research unit and an associated master-degree education programme in Sfax, Tunisia, however this will take some time as it requires significant financial support and multi-country collaboration.”

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