AfriPlantSci Summer School 2019 at Pwani University, Kilifi, Kenya

We had arrived in Kilifi on the eastern coastline of Kenya. Our accommodation was a little more unorthodox that most. We were to be staying on a boathouse!

The boathouse was located by the Kilifi boatyard on the water and required dinghy service to get to and from. On board were 3 bedrooms, a kitchen living area, a bathroom and a generously sized terrace area on top.

Our new home for the next few weeks

We arrived at the boatyard, said our hellos, and then we proceeded to jump on to the dinghy that we would be frequenting so much over the next couple of weeks. The 3 of us (Hans, fellow PhD student James and I) boarded the dinghy with all our luggage along with the other curious PIPS students and off we went. The dinghy driver pulled up to the houseboat and off we went. This was certainly going to be a unique experience that’s for sure.

One of my favourite aspects about the houseboat already was the incredible views of the creek from both the roof terrace as well as all the bedrooms. The scenery was stunning. The houseboat had been anchored in the creek for several years now and as such, it had formed its own mini ecosystem. It was surrounded by interesting fish, crabs and everything else where their existence was solely around the houseboat. Our own miniature reef right on our doorstep…literally!

To then get to the shore, we were able to ring a bell on the houseboat itself or phone up the dinghy driver on shift to pick us up. We made use of this the first day to try lunch at the boatyard restaurant. Our first impressions of Kilifi and our new home were great so far.

Once we had settled in and ran a few errands, we headed toward Pwani University for the first time. We were introduced to people and promptly began helping to set-up one of the lab practicals for the AfriPlantSci Summer School 2019 that was due to start the following day. Excitement was brewing, we couldn’t wait to meet the participants.

The university campus itself was a nice location, perfect for the summer school. The campus had extensive green space filled with trees, plants, flowers and some wildlife to boot.

And so here it was, the reason we were all here. It was the first day of the AfriPlantSci Summer School 2019. This was a 2 week residential course teaching early-career scientists and PhD students from Africa all about cutting-edge plant and agricultural science, helping to build capacity for their home institutions and labs while advancing their scientific skillset.  

The day started with an “ice-breaker”, a chance to meet and chat with everyone in a fun and informal session. We stood outside where the ground represented a world map. We all firstly had to stand on our respective locations from where we had come from. From here we would then move around the globe and share our local greetings with each other and to learn a bit more about that person. The aim was to try to learn as many new greetings as you could and to find out as much as you could about everyone.

From here, the workshops began. Workshops focused on building soft transferrable skills, teaching scientific concepts and helping to develop everyone as a better scientist. These were a combination of taught components and interactive segments where the students could get stuck in with applying what they had just heard about to further build upon those skills.

The following are a selection of some of the sessions students took part in.

Rose Kigathi of Pwani University kicked off the sessions, starting with a workshop on career development. This was followed by workshops from Levi yant of Nottingham University discussing the best way to formulate research questions and a chance to work a ‘concept note’ (a piece of writing such as a grant application that could be shared with the course for feedback and improvement).

Peter Emmrich from the BecA-ILRI hub in Nairobi through a John Innes Centre alliance led a session on presentation skills. I think this gave everyone a lot of food for thought. Too often we are subjected to the standard age-old ‘academic’ presentation which features hundreds of densely filled slides which are quickly glossed over, not taking in to account in experience-level of the audience. As such, many people emulate this style which is not as engaging. Instead, we were taught the value of clean sides, explaining concepts and data in an accessible manner, speaking with purpose and really forming that connection with the audience. These are all very important to make science accessible to a wider range of scientists and non-scientists.

Throughout the course, students were tasked with giving presentations of their own and they were all excellent, it was clear that everyone had taken on board a lot of the advice given in this session.  

Connor Tansley of the University of East Anglia delivered a session later in the week which focused on critically analysing a research paper in the form of a journal club. This was a good opportunity for students to learn what makes a good journal publication, and what makes for a bad one. The quality of the data and the way that it is presented was a large feature, as these are the backbone of a research publication.

Next up, it was in to the lab. This week, we were first starting off with the fundamentals of molecular biology including some DNA and RNA work from plant tissue. Many participants had never experienced any molecular biology previously and so these lab sessions proved incredibly useful.

It was good fun to help with these lab practicals as a demonstrator and it also helped build upon my scientific understanding of certain concepts while helping to develop my science communication skills.

Led by Anne Edwards and Sian Bray of the John Innes Centre, we extracted and purified both DNA and RNA from local plant samples. From here, we were able to analyse specific genetic fragments through polymerase-chain reaction (PCR) and gel electrophoresis. These are techniques frequently used in molecular biology research to amplify specific regions of genetic information, and to then visualise and interpret that information. Such fragments could then be used for further molecular biology work such as molecular cloning and transformation, both of which the students carried out.

Later in the week, we focused on the world of plant stress research. Plants and crops are grown all around the world but that doesn’t mean things are perfect. Many crop harvests are wiped out due to diseases, droughts, flooding, soil composition and pests for example. By working with seed, soil and hydroponics, participants learnt more about research techniques used to understand more about these plant growth stresses, and how we as scientists can work to improve plant life to tolerate or resist these stresses better. This is particularly important across African nations where in many parts, food security is constantly at risk due to many of these plant stresses. Yields may be inconsistent, and many peoples’ livelihoods could be easily destroyed.

Students were tasked with treating seeds to allow for germination, analysing soil composition, acid extractions of plant tissue for ion research, and preparation of hydroponic chambers for plant growth-based research.

To accompany these lab sessions, students were taught about related current research advancements and the theory behind them from invited guest lecturers and group leaders. The invitation for these lectures was also extended beyond the course with the wider university student body and as such, these lectures generated a lot of interest. It was fantastic to see such excitement and interest for plant and molecular biology-related research across campus. We heard all about cutting-edge research from Levi Yant and Silvia Busoms.

In between these sessions, we squeeze in lunch, dinner and some tea breaks. These served as excellent opportunities for students and course facilitators to really get to know each other. As a result of these informal chances to network, many future collaborations and friendships were formed. This just goes to show the value of lunch-time in science – its not just a chance to grab food, but a chance to really connect with your fellow scientists.

After a very busy first few days, we all got some time off on the Sunday to relax by the pool and spend time getting to better know the participants. It was great to meet people from various countries, cities and towns from across Africa. You could tell from each and everyone on the course, that they really did have a passion for science, and they did want to make a difference through their work. To be given the chance to work with such enthusiastic researchers and students was a privilege and it was quite clear that we had many future leaders in our midst. 


Danny Ward

[Key personnel/contributors linked to this project:

Pwani University (Kilifi) – Dr. Santie de Villiers ¦ Dr. Rose Kigathi

John Innes Centre/UEA – Dr. Tilly Eldridge, Chris Darby, Angela Payne, Dr. Jodi Lilley, Matt Heaton, JIC Graduate School Office ¦ UEA Internships and Placements team ¦Hans Pfalzgraf ¦ Danny Ward    

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

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

“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)”]


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