The Project and the Wildlife

Our first week of our PIPS (professional internship for PhD students) placement has begun, time to start the project. For Hans, this was to create a production pipeline for a transferable skills video training series. For myself, a similar project but for a bioinformatic video training series.

To start off the week, we attended the first of a weekly meeting held with all staff from the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) hub at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the place where we are doing our PIPS. We gave a short introduction as to who we were and what our projects consisted of. All the other staff then introduced themselves to us and went around and discussed what they had been working on over the past week and any issues that arose. It was nice to feel welcome and to hear what things people were involved with. Tea, coffee and snacks were added bonuses too of course!

This followed with a meeting with those supervising our projects. We discussed the project in greater detail and really broke down the individual tasks and considerations that may be worth thinking about with these video series.

For our projects, the primary goal is to produce pilot episodes and a technical user guide which will feed in to continued video production for later staff, students or placements. By doing this, we can work out the best format for the videos based on feedback, try to identify any potential limitations or issues, and to lay the groundwork for a full-length continued video series.

From here, it was time to research and evaluate what else is out there. By seeing what other successful series do well or poorly, we begun to gain a better understanding of a potential niche we can fill and how we can better market ourselves to suit the needs of early-career African students and researchers.

We also were able to create a first draft of a script for our pilot episodes. I tried to combine a few different elements to showcase what is possible with the video series. The topic I chose to work with for the pilot episode was sequence alignment the tool BLAST. This is one of the fundamental tools of bioinformatics and so I thought it would serve as a good introduction to how the video series could go.

Along-side this, our first week was also spent learning how to best use the equipment, troubleshooting issues that arose, scouting out potential filming locations, evaluating and testing the best software to use, and then subsequently learning that software. Many of these steps had steep learning curves but we we’re lucky, YouTube tutorials really are a life-saver!

This week flew by, it was Friday already. On Friday mornings, at ILRI we have a meeting where we discuss a theme of the day. Its outside accompanied with tea, coffee and snacks….my kind of meeting! For this meeting, we were exploring more about the core values of ILRI: Respect, Responsibility and Responsiveness. This took the form of a teamwork exercise. We all had to line up standing shoulder to shoulder. Then we had to balance balloons between us and the next persons shoulders. We then, as a team (of about 11 people) then had to reach a finish line without touching the balloon with out hands and without letting it drop. To add a sense of urgency, we were also competing against teams doing the same. Our team slowly inched forward bit by bit to reach the finish. A fun activity but it did stress the importance of team-work and communication at the same time.

The weekend had approached! Friday evening, we spent some time with new friends playing games, watching the six nations rugby and being very creative with some culinary creations.

On Saturday I took advantage of the great recreational facilities on the ILRI campus. I used the gym…followed by a swim!

Then it was Sunday and time for some exploration. We woke up bright and early, we were heading to Nairobi National Park. It was our first taste of safari, time to spot some animals. But first, we had to pay to enter. As we were queuing up to get out tickets, we were greeted with a curious little friend. A very determined small monkey made an appearance, promptly raided a small rubbish bin for snacks and then off it went.

After getting out tickets, we drove around the park routes with our eyes peeled. Within a minute or two, we had seen our first set of animals. Giraffes, ostriches, hippos and crocodiles all happily relaxing around a small watering hole. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first.

We continued traversing the paths, some significantly easier to navigate than others eagerly looking out for wildlife. It never felt like it was very long before we saw something completely new. The hours passed by and the number of sightings crept up and up, we really managed to see a lot.

Some of the main highlights include many of the incredible birds of prey, zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, hartebeests, warthogs, hippos, crocodiles, ostriches, gazelles, antelopes and monkeys.

The most exciting for me however was getting to see one of the very rare rhinos, we nearly missed it as we drove past. It was far in the distance and blended quite well with the background, but then I noticed the horn….stop the car!

We stopped off for a light lunch at one of the quiet viewpoints, we could see some animals off in the distance but thankfully nothing close by to swipe our food. We had an impressive view of a valley right near the edge of the park.

Following this, we drove to a ranger point where we had the opportunity to explore a section of the park on-foot. For virtually all of the national park, you are confined to the safety of your vehicle (sensibly so) however, there is a small walking route section providing you are accompanied with one of the rangers. We meandered through trees on the side of the river bank surrounded by various wildlife. Along the route we saw crocodiles, a hippo, turtles, a monkey…and probably many things that we didn’t see (although they almost certainly saw us).

Overall, I really enjoyed the experience of the national park, I have never gotten to see animals really roam free like that. The diversity of the wildlife was incredible, and the landscape of the park was quite something. From parts of the park close to the city, you can see the city skyline behind which gave rise to some cool shots. Having such wild nature in front of skyscrapers was quite a contrast which I am sure not many national parks can offer. I couldn’t recommend Nairobi National Park enough, it really is a must see for visitors to the city!

All in all, it was a busy first week, but we made lots of progress with our project, and we got to see some of the incredible nature that Nairobi has to offer. Let’s see what next week has to offer!

Danny Ward

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[“This work was supported by the Norwich Research Park Doctoral Training Partnership (NRPDTP), by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council of the United Kingdom (BBSRC) through the BBSRC-STARS grant with reference BB/R020272/1 awarded for the ABCF Bioinformatics Community of Practice, and by the BecA-ILRI Hub through the Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) program. The ABCF program is funded by the Australian Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) through the BecA-CSIRO partnership; the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA); the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF); the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and; the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (sida)”

Key personnel/contributors linked to this project:

BecA-ILRI hub (Nairobi) – Dr. Jean-Baka Domelevo Entfellner ¦ Dr. Peter Emmrich ¦ Dr. Wellington Ekaya

John Innes Centre/UEA – JIC Graduate School Office ¦ UEA Internships and Placements team ¦ Hans Pfalzgraf ¦ Danny Ward    

We would like to extend our gratitude to all those listed, along with all others, who contributed and supported towards this project in various capacities – this wouldn’t have been possible without your help]

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