Friday, 21 August 2015

Can flies do the magic?

This is the unedited version of the article recently published on The Guardian. I want to put it out because a) this is much more me than what was published; b) I think the story of how DrosAfrica was baked is more clear here, even though it was tough to fit it in 800 words; and c) because I insisted they credited some people and groups and they did not, so I have to do it myself.
They say living in Cambridge will change your life, and it definitively changed mine. It is not just the gorgeous buildings and the historic atmosphere. The thrilling scientific community and the endless opportunities for brainstorming and collaboration make science run at a different pace. People are open, collaborative and willing to help in a way I have not seen anywhere else. In 2011, three Spanish researchers with a Cambridge connection jumped to the opportunity to volunteer-teach in a Drosophila neurogenetics workshop1. Upon setting foot on Ishaka2 it was clear that there is an enormous human potential in African universities that is mostly underutilised. We think a small dipteran can contribute to the solution.

Drosophila melanogaster has been instrumental for the birth of the fields of Developmental Biology and Genetics and is an important tool in most areas of Biomedical research. Beyond that, flies are an invaluable tool for teaching research, the scientific method and critical thinking. Drosophila transformed the scientific scene in Spain decades ago, when the limited resources called for an inexpensive laboratory model. We believe these flies can empower the scientists of Africa to pursue their research interests.

African Biomedical scientists face important challenges, mainly poor training, poorer infrastructure and scarce resources, national and international, dedicated to research. In this context, most of the researches done in the area are epidemiological studies or are limited by the use of rats as laboratory model. None of these methodologies addresses the cellular and molecular events underlying physiological processes or diseases, neither do they teach junior scientists the drills of hypothesis-driven science. As a result, the African research agenda is mostly set by well-intended funders who live far away from the African reality. The local researchers are most often ignored, sometimes used as a token in “collaborative” grants. Those on ground have little-to-no decision-making power and the biggest part of the resources return to “the West”, where they originated.

In 2012, I moved to Uganda to work on the establishment of a research lab in KIU Western Campus3. Yes, resources are scarce and recruiting qualified staff is mission impossible. Yes, the lab is dusty because we don't even have adequate windows. But picture this. A Nigerian Pharmacologist, a Spanish developmental Biologist and a Ugandan Pharmacy student are standing around a cracked bench. They are discussing the best experimental design to test the long-term effects of repeated exposure to particular drugs, using flies. The scene happens in 2015 in a small town in Western Uganda. Only two years before, the mzungu4 of Ishaka had organized a workshop5 with the help of some friends and some willing strangers, on the use of Drosophila melanogaster for Biomedical research. The West African was the most senior academician among the participants of that workshop. The East African was mid-way in her degree and had no idea of what was flying in that lab upstairs.

In 2013, the three Spanish researchers founded DrosAfrica6 and set to train a community of researchers that can use Drosophila to investigate their Biomedical questions. In the two workshops held at KIU Western Campus we have trained 27 people (17 Nigerians, 3 Kenyans, and 4 Ugandans; 20 of them KIU members, 7 coming from outside). Nowadays, our alumni are using Drosophila for their PhD projects and leading budding Drosophila-research groups in Uganda and Nigeria. We have also established contact with other institutions and 2016 should be full of activity.

Raising funds for any capacity building event is a big challenge. Cooperation agencies want clean water for all, the cure for malaria or the solution to pandemics, but forget to build the capacity that will enable African scientists to compete for research funds to study African problems. The few agencies that fund workshops will give small amounts that will partially cover expenses. If we do not cover travelling costs for participants, we will be limited to the local audience. Luckily, KIU had attracted an international population for us to work with and our initial efforts can expand with the return home of our alumni.

Two years after the first workshop we have an established research group producing graduates who have done high quality research with their own hands without leaving the continent, and our alumni are training others on the ground. We want to do more workshops. We want to establish fly-rooms all over Sub-Saharan Africa. The resources needed to start up a fly lab are small and the deep knowledge about fly development, together with the numerous genetic tools available allow for elegant and profound discoveries to be made.

We think that Drosophila is a suitable model to be used by African researchers. May the flies lead the take off of African Biomedical research...

1The Drosophila neurogenetics course. Uganda 2011 was organized by Lucía Prieto Godino and Sadiq Yusuf.

2Ishaka town is located in the Bushenyi District in the region of Western Uganda

3Kampala International University Western Campus houses the Health Sciences and a few other degrees in the area of Humanities.

4 mzungu is the Swahili term for a person who travels, and has stuck in the common language as a word, a shout, for white and pale people in general

5The workshop was funded by the Cambridge-Africa Alborada Research Fund, TWAS, EMBO, Sayansi Research for Development and the philanthropic contribution of FRS Tony Kouzarides (Gurdon Institute, Cambridge, UK).

6 Marta Vicente-Crespo, Isabel Palacios and María Dolores Martín Bermudo are the co-founders of DrosAfrica. Tim Weill and Silvia Muñoz-Descalzo are Directors of this initiative.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Uganda: an Overview

(I wrote this for work but I think it still fits the theme of this blog and since I don’t write much outside of work these days, I am doing some recycling here)

Kampala is the heart of Uganda. Everything that happens in Uganda, at some point, touches Kampala. A visit to Old Kampala makes for a perfect test for the tourist’ appetites: if one can take the overpopulated streets, the crowded shops, the chaotic old taxi park, the still traffic jam that disappears when the traffic officers release their block at the neighbouring roundabout, then one can say that is ready to see the real Uganda.

Initially built on seven hills, the now-more-than-seven hills that Kampala covers make it hard to move around on foot, but gives the opportunity to enjoy tremendous views from places like the Catholic cathedral or the upper roads of Makindye. Tourists can get a more relaxed shopping experience at the Garden City and Oasis malls after a less hectic walk through the hill of Nakasero, land of government buildings and big hotels.

The neighbouring Entebbe makes for a more relaxed destination if only one day is available or if the visitor has some spare hours before their flight. A walk through the Botanical Gardens, a guided tour through the town, daily excursion to observe some hard-to-see birds or a boat transfer to the island where the chimpanzees have found refuge are all worthy. Transfers from the old taxi park in Kampala cost three to five thousand Ugandan Shillings depending on the luggage. A special hire can be around 70000 UGX depending on oil prices.

The possibilities of Uganda as a tourist destination are enormous. Less exploited than Kenya and Tanzania, it also offers unique jewels not present in the neighbouring safari destinations. South Western Uganda is the best place to visit the endangered mountain gorilla. Housing half of the world’s living mountain gorillas, Uganda is the safest country to experience the amazing gorilla tracking. The permits are expensive to protect this species of which there are less that a thousand animals.

No less spectacular are the landscapes and wildlife of the most popular park, the Queen Elizabeth National Park, and the largest in extension, the Murchison Falls National Park. Situated in Western and North Western Uganda respectively, the parks offer the possibility of seeing the big mammals - lions, elephants, buffaloes - and even crocodiles, leopards and hyenas. The diversity of antelope species, the elegance of the giraffes and the beauty of the falls make the Northern park worth the ride. A spectacular boat ride full of close sights, and the magnificent views of the crater area make for a distinct visit at the Queen’s land. Oh! The Queen Elizabeth Park also contains great diversity of birds for those who love looking up.

A favourite to those who enjoy quieter spaces is the only spot in Uganda where one can see zebra, Lake Mburo National Park. Located ten kilometers South from the main road on the way from Kampala to Mbarara, this small park is house to the only equine that survives well in this land and to some picturesque antelope species as well as to the popular warthog. The lake is another jewel for bird watching and camping by the hippo-populated waters is a fabulous experience.


Kampala is the capital city of Uganda and concentrates most of the public infrastructures of the country. The city is well connected with all other regions of the country and is the center of national economic and social activity.

Recent reports from the World Bank point out the improvement in the operations of the Kampala City Council, specially after the introduction of a zero tolerance policy for corruption. Several roads have been widened and the pavement improved, including sidewalks on one or two sides and bumps to reduce traffic speed which increase pedestrian security. The overall traffic has improved since the completion of the Northern bypass and is expected to benefit from the construction of the ramification at the West entrance in direction Entebbe.

In partnership with international corporations the City Council is implementing a project to develop an Integrated Solid Waste Management system for Kampala which shall enhance recycling, increase collection, generate energy from waste and set up a new processing facility to avoid concentration of residues.

Kampala is home to Makerere University, East Africa’s first university. A hub of research institutes have sprouted from the original institution like the Infectious Disease Institute. The internationally renowned Uganda Virus Research Institute also sits in the nearby Entebbe, and the six National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARIS), the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI), and the Presidential Initiative on Banana Industrial Development (PIBID), employ a number of scientists that work for the country’s research priorities.

Some useful tips

Arrivals by air: arrivals to Entebbe airport by the following and other companies:

  • British Airways has flights leaving London every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; returns leave Entebbe on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday;

  • Brussels Airways has flights leaving Brussels every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday; returns leave Entebbe on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday;

  • Kenyan Airlines has five flights operating daily between Nairobi and Entebbe (schedule depends on the day of the week);

  • Ethiopian Airlines has two flights operating daily between Addis Ababa and Entebbe;

  • Rwandar Air also flies every day between Kigali and Entebbe;

  • Fly Emirates has two daily morning flights from Dubai to Entebbe and one afternoon flight to return to Dubai;

  • Egypt Air runs daily flights, either with its own crafts or using partner companies like South African Airways.

For affordable tickets, or and other travel searching engines can be useful.

Transfers from the airport can be hired in advance or at arrival. Licensed taxi drivers will stand up at the arrivals door and will offer their service. Note that a ride to Kampala can cost between seventy and a hundred thousand depending on the final destination. Most hotels in Entebbe, even the backpackers hostel, offer airport transfers somewhere between free and some 25000 UGX, depending on the accommodation rate.

Transfers to Kampala by public transport are done by matatu, small vans licensed to carry up to 14 passengers. The price can go from three to five thousand with one piece of luggage.

Connection by land can be done with some bus companies like:

  • Easycoach, Kampala Coach, and Mash for Kenya

  • Mash and Jaguar go to Rwanda

  • Kalita goes to Tanzania

Buses stop in Old or Central Kampala depending on the company. Hotels in those areas tend to be noisy, but can be convenient if an early or late bus is to be boarded.

More tips on getting there and away can be found here.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Anyone in Finland?

Anyone in Finland who might want to submit a collaborative project to work with us in the improvement of higher education in Uganda?


Thursday, 1 August 2013

Science For Development

Big news for science in Uganda!!! A group from Mbarara University and a team led by the University of Valencia (Spain) which includes participation of the Kampala International University Western Campus are among the awardees of the Saving Lives at Birth. Science for development can also be done in Africa. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!


Saturday, 15 June 2013

It's Friday Again

Last night (a few weeks ago now that I finally get to publish this) I was sitting on my couch, tired after playing a bit of basketball with people that are much younger, much stronger, and in much better shape than I am, and I realized that I was hearing loud music; the kind of music you would hear in a disco around here. “Of course”, I thought, “It's Thursday, and we are in a (tiny) university town.

Today is Friday, indeed, and our Nigerians put on their traditional clothes...

Monday, 3 June 2013

5000 for Uganda Challenge

Sayasi has launched a small big challenge: obtaining 5000 euros from small donations to improve the facilities of the Institute of Biomedical Research. Will you help us getting there? And disseminating the info?



Sayansi ha lanzado un pequeño gran reto: conseguir 5000 euros a base de pequeñas donaciones para mejorar las instalaciones del Institute of Bomedical Research ¿Nos ayudas a conseguirlo? ¿y a difundirlo?

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Anyone with Wellcome Trust Funds for this call?

International Engagement Awards

Funding for public engagement with Wellcome Trust research in low- and middle-income countries.

(a very important matter with very little support otherwise – we have a good relationship established with a local radio station and BBC Africa would probably be interested in getting on board if the opportunity comes; this is us

What are the Awards

The International Engagement Awards have been relaunched after the success of the previous scheme. The scheme has been refocused to award projects that are linked to Wellcome Trust-funded research.

International Engagement Awards are for projects that support Wellcome Trust-funded researchers in low- and middle-income countries to:

  • engage with the public and policy makers
  • strengthen capacity to conduct public engagement with biomedical science and health research
  • stimulate dialogue about research and its impact on the public in a range of community and public contexts
  • promote collaboration on engagement projects between researchers and community or public organisations.

Projects could engage:

  • communities and members of the public (particularly those affected by or involved in biomedical and health research)
  • science communicators, health and science journalists
  • healthcare professionals, educators, field workers, community workers
  • policy and decision makers.

The audience for the project, and the engagement activity, must be in a low- or middle-income country.

If you are interested in conducting research into the effectiveness of science communication or engagement, you may be interested in our Ethics and Society schemes.

How do I apply?

To be eligible, you must be either:

  • directly funded by the Wellcome Trust (as a researcher, research group or institution); or
  • working with a researcher, research group, institution or consortium directly funded by the Wellcome Trust.

We encourage informal discussions about potential project ideas before you submit an application, although we cannot review draft applications.

To apply for a grant of up to £30 000 for up to three years, complete a preliminary application form and submit it to the Trust by the date indicated under the ‘Deadlines’ tab.

We will assess preliminary applications for eligibility, their link to Trust-funded research and the quality of the proposed engagement project. If your preliminary application is successful, we will invite you to make a full application.

Please note that applications that do not have an appropriate link to Trust-funded research will not be accepted. Such links must be agreed with the Trust-funded grantholder in advance of submission.

Final decisions will be made approximately five months after the preliminary application deadline.

Larger grants of more than £30 000 can be applied for by invitation only to support exceptional projects.

Deadlines and Contacts

Upcoming preliminary deadlines for the International Engagement Awards are:

19 August 2013

You can contact us at:
International Engagement Awards
Wellcome Trust
Gibbs Building
215 Euston Road
London NW1 2BE, UK

T +44 (0)20 7611 8806