My Experience as a Teaching Assistant in Ethiopia

Preamble

The ‘Ethiopia Project’ is a capacity-sharing initiative of the University of Calgary’s Bachelor of Health Sciences programme in partnership with some research institutions in Ethiopia. Initiated in 2006, it delivers hands-on short courses annually based on train-the-trainer model that encompasses molecular biology and laboratory-based approaches in building sustainable health research systems. They regularly require teaching assistants to help out with the hands-on activities, who in turn benefit from the global health and teaching experience.

Initial excitement and hesitation

I was excited when I first saw the advertisement last November about the Ethiopia Project Teaching Assistantship. I had the skill-set required since I routinely use some molecular biology techniques and have TA experience.  On a more personal note, the context for the teaching assistantship (low-to-middle income country) also resonated well with me. Having studied for my first degree under such settings, I fully understand the experiences of researchers and students. As such, I always look forward to opportunities as these where I can assist in my own little way. However, I was reluctant to apply at first when I saw the time commitment in the title of the advertisement – 8 weeks between May to August 2015. From the perspective of a graduate student this is a significant chunk of time to give away for something that will not directly contribute to your thesis at the end. Perhaps other HPI trainees thought the same or had their reasons for not applying. First, the deadline extension announcement came from Teresa, then further explanation of how one did not need to be an expert in molecular biology techniques in order to apply.

At this point, I decided to further explore the issue and having found out that the time requirement was not one lump, I discussed my interest in this opportunity with my supervisor who was very supportive. I finally sent in my application for the TA position. I guess I was the last person to apply since my application was sent in after the extended deadline. Looking back at the whole experience, I am very glad I did. In the end, the actual time involvement was not what was advertised. I spent just a week in Calgary (I am one of the Edmonton HPI trainees) for the pre-field work and 2 weeks for the travel and course delivery in Gondar, Ethiopia. So, for anyone that might consider time involvement as a limiting factor, I would like to say that this should not be a discouragement because it is manageable.

The training in Calgary

The initiative is supervised by:  Dr. Guido van Marle, Dr. Wendy Hutchins, and Dr. Lash Gedamu. They assess the training needs of the program from time to time. This year, the course content included different PCR flavours and ELISA techniques. The pre-field work training lasted one week, full time and covered everything from theory to practical – essentially the same thing we were going to do in Ethiopia as TAs. It was vivid enough that one does not need to have strong background in molecular biology to do it. If this is your deterring reason, I would recommend that you give it a try. It is rewarding and a great learning opportunity. There is definitely a difference between learning to teach someone else and learning just to acquire knowledge. Besides, who knows you might find one or two useful techniques to incorporate in your research. My stay in Calgary was great as I also had some time to play soccer with Ale (my co-TA) and his team and to meet new people.

The Ethiopia Trip

We departed Toronto on July 2, 2015 for Ethiopia at 11:20 a.m. having arrived in the early hours of the morning. Thirteen (13) hours later, we arrived at Addis Ababa on the morning of July 3. At Addis Ababa, Lash showed us around the fast-growing city and hosted us to a dinner. The next day we proceeded to Gondar (an hour’s flight away) – our final destination where the training took place this year. We used the first few days mainly to get things ready and for sightseeing.  We arrived at Gondar on Saturday, July 4, which coincidentally was the convocation day at the university. This event was our first call in the city. It was a pomp-filled event and held outdoors. Next, we visited some monuments in Gondar including the castles at Fasil Ghebbi (Royal Enclosure), some of which date back to the 1600s. Thereafter, we retired to Hotel Kino, where we stayed for the duration we were in Gondar. The next day (Sunday, July 5), we basically prepared for the week-long course commencing the next day. We dug out reagents from freezers and finalized the course schedule.

_DSC5549  _DSC5626

 

The actual training started on Monday (July 6), lasting for 5 days with each day full of activities for the trainees from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The course commenced with introductions. There were about 30 trainees this year, most whom were young lecturers/researchers from the host University (Gondar), while others came from research institutions from nearby cities. Trainees spent the first half of the day learning different assay designs and flavours of PCR. This was delivered by Guido. In the other half, they set up the first round of nested PCR and a sequence-specific PCR using different malaria species. This was trainees’ first hands-on activity and our (TAs’) first chance to interact more closely with them and learn about their backgrounds.

Day 2 was more of theory than hands-on. Trainees had a lecture on real-time PCR. Then they ran an agarose gel to visualize the results of the previous day’s sequence-specific PCR accompanied by explanation of data. They also set up the second round of nested PCR using the previous day’s reactions as templates. For the remainder of the day, they learnt how to design primers and about antibodies as reagents and in assays.

Day 3 was dominated by hands-on activities. The students ran an agarose gel of the previous day’s nested PCR and the results explained to them. They then had a walk-through for calculation of gene copy numbers for use in quantitative competitor PCR (QC PCR).  This is a great technique for quantifying the expression of gene of interest in a low-income setting where a real-time PCR machine may not be available. The trainees used their calculations to set up an actual QC PCR. For the remaining time, they practiced multi-channel pipetting and then coated and blocked ELISA plates for direct and capture ELISAs. This is another great way to save cost in a resource-limiting setting that I learnt – coating your own plates instead of purchasing pre-coated ELISA plates.

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Day 4 was another hands-on day and the last. Trainees
completed the remaining steps for both ELISA procedures they started the previous day. They also ran a gel of the QC PCR with the results explained to them. On day 5, trainees had a lecture on assay validation and another to recap the activities of the week followed by a question-and-answer session. The last activity was presentation of certificates to all participants of the course (trainees, TAs, instructor and facilitators). In the evening we went shoulder dancing at a Gondar pub to wrap up the day and successful completion of the course.

Advice for Interested HPI Trainees

This is an all-in-one opportunity and I would definitely recommend it to anyone that is interested. There is the volunteer/outreach bit, learning/training and a great travel experience. As I have already mentioned above, time involvement and molecular biology skills should not be deterring factors. This trip has helped me to further appreciate some of the things we take here in Canada for granted. For example, power interruption is very frequent out there and could last for hours sometimes. They had giant inverters for the lab we were working in, to enable thermocyclers and other smaller equipment to run in times of power outage. Resources are limited and some of the techniques for the course described above are designed to address these issues.  Internet access is limited as well and WiFi is not as freely available as we are used to.

I was also able to meet new people and experience some interesting things about Ethiopia. For instance, the Ethiopian calendar is about 7 years behind the Gregorian so in some places, you could get a receipt that bears the year 2007 but it is current! Others use a 12-hour clock in which the day starts at 6 instead of midnight with the result that 7 a.m is 1 o’clock and 12 p.m is 6 o’clock and so on. When making an appointment with someone, you have to make a deliberate attempt to ensure that you are both talking about the same time. All-told, this is wonderful experience that I nearly missed.

 

Acknowledgements

This is a fully supported HPI initiative. HPI covered all expenses associated with my training in Calgary and the Ethiopia trip. I therefore want to use this opportunity to say a big thank you to Teresa and the HPI executive for this.  I appreciate the full support of my supervisor (Dr. Patrick Hanington) for the application. I also want to thank the supervisors of the Ethiopia project for giving me the opportunity in spite of my sending in the application after the deadline. Thank you to Ale for taking all the pictures used here.

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