I had the unique privilege to aid Drs. Guido van Marle and Lashitew Gedamu along with fellow graduate student Tim Jayme to travel to Africa and teach a workshop on molecular biology and bioinformatics. I was honoured to be chosen for the trip, and was not disappointed in the thrilling opportunity that awaited me in Africa – the birthplace of humanity. In the months that led up to the trip itself, there were many meetings, many workshops, and lots of brushing up on rusty molecular microbiology techniques. Tim and I were tasked with developing assignments for the workshop. For my part, the assignment included a number of bioinformatics and virtual molecular biology tools, many of which are available freely on the internet. But how do you access these types of tools in a rural area in a country where the electrical infrastructure is sometimes as simple two exposed live wires that you connect and disconnect when/if you require power (this is how our hotel was powered off the main grid)? This was one of the first challenges that presented itself to me. The short answer to this question is you have a back-up plan, and a back-up plan for your back-up plan, and so on. With internet being even more sporadic than the power grid, you download offline tools, and, when all else fails, you resort to good old fashioned pen and paper. I worked and polished my assignment until I felt I had accounted for almost any contingent.
In addition to working on physical assignments, we were also tasked to act as teaching assistants (TAs) to run the wet lab portion of the workshop. In the wet labs we were running different types of PCR, including sequence specific PCR and qPCR (or real-time PCR). Here we reinforced concepts learned from the lecture portion of the workshop to really enable the students achieve a thorough understanding of the work that they would be doing. This, in my eyes, was one of the most applicable and fundamental lessons for the students. The connection between theory and practical application is where you would see so many of those “lightbulb” moments where you see the students connect the concepts and really start to grasp the power of these types of molecular techniques.
This experience was unique, not only in its professional challenges, but for me on a more personal level as well. Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, I have never set foot outside the continent. On this trip alone, I had tripled the amount of continents I have set foot on, adding Europe and Africa to the list. With a short 12-hour layover in London, England, Tim and I decided to make the most of it and take a quick tour of the sites. After a grueling couple days of travel, we finally arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Addis was startling to someone like me, and definitely took some getting used to. Traffic is chaotic, there truly appear to be few observed rules of the road. You push, you shove, and eventually you get to where you’re going. During our stay in Addis, we toured around the city, saw some sites, and met with various people from AHRI (Armauer Hansen Research Institute). Here we toured a facility that was being built as a Tuberculosis research lab, as well as the current research laboratories. It was truly amazing and inspiring to see the amount and quality of research being carried out in the labs we toured, and it made me appreciate more fully the amenities of my own lab.
After spending one week in Addis, we flew to Gonder, a rural city up in the north of the country, where we carried out three of the five days of our workshop. It was in Gonder that we met up with Drs. Dylan Pillai and Bonnie Meatherall who were teaching an infectious disease workshop in parallel to ours. The workshops were definitely a resounding success and I think were appreciated by all parties involved. Now, when I say we carried out three of the five days of our workshop, I feel I must admit that our workshop was regrettably cut short in Gonder due to unforeseen protests, that had unfortunately turned violent. I begrudgingly admit this because, while we did end up flying out of Gonder early for safety reasons, I never felt like my safety was in jeopardy. I should further explain that both the University of Gonder and Dr. Gedamu never hesitated when they felt the situation warranted action and were commendable on the mitigation of any possible risks. Furthermore the president of the University of Gonder personally escorted us to the airport and facilitated our departure from the city. I also feel obliged to point out that Dr. van Marle and Dr. Gedamu have never witnessed this type of activity in the 7+ years these types of workshops have been held in Ethiopia.
While the situation during our trip was not ideal, I feel confident in stating that I have walked away from this trip with hundreds of positive experiences and would recommend this experience to anyone remotely interested without hesitation. I can only say positive things about my time in Africa, and wouldn’t skip a beat if asked to return. Africa is such a beautiful place, and the citizens of Ethiopia were warm, welcoming and extremely courteous. I met so many amazing people on this trip and cannot fully express my gratitude towards everyone involved in making this experience a reality for me. For my part, I would like to thank the NSERC-CREATE Host Parasite Interactions groups for facilitating my trip, as well as personally thank Drs. Guido van Marle and Lashitew Gedamu. I would also like to thank our contacts in Ethiopia, at the University of Gonder, who truly made us feel welcomed and comfortable and were always around for us. Finally, I cannot recommend this program enough, and encourage anyone who is thinking about it, to apply. It is a unique and amazing experience, and has opened my eyes to a more global perspective which I believe will help shape my career aspirations in the future.