Training Africa’s scientists

  • April 27, 2015
Training Africa’s scientists

Scholar Elect Carol Ibe runs a company that trains African researchers in the skills they will need to aid the continent's development.

African governments and international NGOs need to invest more in research and development to enable African scientists to come up with solutions to poverty and food insecurity, says Carol Ibe.

The Scholar Elect is not only starting a PhD in Plant Science at Cambridge in the autumn, but will do her research at the same time as running her own company which provides hands-on biotechnology laboratory training courses to research students and scientists, mainly in Africa.

Carol set up JR Biotek two years ago, but the idea for the biotechnology education company came to her earlier while she was doing her first masters at Georgetown University in the US. At the time she felt she needed more training so it was not until 2013 that she registered her company in the US and Nigeria. With the support of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria, she launched her first training programme in biotechnology and biomedicine for students and laboratory scientists in Africa last year.

She faced a lot of challenges setting up the programme – firstly, in getting partners on board, then in finding laboratory space and covering the costs of laboratory equipment. She wanted to ensure that those participating paid minimal costs so the training could be open to as many research students in Africa as possible. IITA waived their bench fee and the National Biotechnology Development Agency, a Nigerian government agency, provided part sponsorship for the first annual biotechnology laboratory training workshop which was held at IITA campus in Nigeria in September 2014. More than 60 people applied for the training workshop from 11 countries in Africa. Most could not attend because they lacked funding, even though the costs were very low. “I understand how difficult it is,” says Carol.

Despite the challenges, however, the programme was a success and Carol plans to do it again on an annual basis, funding permitted. She realised by setting up the company that she needed to get her PhD so she applied to the University of Cambridge and tailored her research proposal to the work she is doing with her company. “When I started JR Biotek, it was not just about capacity building,” she says.

“It was about helping universities in Africa to set up and maintain standard science and research laboratories and to train scientists in how to use the latest laboratory equipment and develop high impact research projects. I started to think what area of training could have the most impact in the continent. Agriculture is key to Africa’s development because it is the largest employer of labour. Poverty keeps getting worse and food insecurity remains a major problem. Soil conditions are deteriorating very rapidly and people are suffering on a daily basis. We need to train a new generation of scientists who can improve agricultural productivity and human health in Africa. To do this requires not just government backing, but international NGOs. We need to be able to come up with new and effective knowledge and ideas that will help our smallholder farmers, who produce majority of Africa’s food supply.”

Her PhD will focus on rice, the staple food of a large part of the world, and how to produce quality rice in places where there are poor soil and climate conditions. “We used to eat rice produced by local farmers, but then we started importing it due to many unfavourable conditions, especially on the part of the farmers. Factors such as lack of funding and new technologies, poor infrastructure and poor market access hinder farmers from producing rice with higher yield and quality. If we can empower smallholder farmers to produce and sell more we can reduce poverty,” she says.

Early years
Carol grew up in Nigeria and did her undergraduate degree there, but was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in the US. Her father is a professor of animal genetics at the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike in Nigeria and did his PhD at the University of Wisconsin. Her mother is an administrative staff in the same University.

When she was two and a half and after her father had completed his PhD, Carol’s family moved back to Nigeria and she stayed there until she did her first master’s degree.

Carol was always very studious. She loved biology and maths, but also had a great interest in music and was part of a choral group while at school and university. She also travelled the country in the debating club at secondary school and was an active member of the bar, and subsequently, a judge in the Judiciary Arm of the Student’s Union Government in the university.

She took her degree at Michael Okpara University of Agriculture in Umuahia in Abia State where her family live. She did general disciplines in her first year, including maths, but by her third year, she was majoring in microbiology. She knew when she started doing microbiology that she wanted to work in a laboratory. At the time she was interested in investigating the causes of disease. “Malaria and typhoid are common in the region I come from and I wanted to know how they came about and how we diagnose them,” she says.

In her fourth year she was introduced to molecular biology and biotechnology and its applications and she developed a strong interest in it. She decided to do her masters in the US due to a lack of resources and teaching staff with more than a limited knowledge of molecular biology in Nigeria at the time. She applied to Georgetown University to do a masters in molecular biology and biochemistry, specialising in biotechnology, as she had a relative in Washington DC. By the end of her first semester, she won the highly competitive National Institutes of Health intramural research training award (IRTA), which enabled her to do an eight-week internship in an NIH laboratory.

Career development
After she graduated, she got a job as a molecular biologist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC and worked in a multi-disciplinary team, developing bio-sensors which could rapidly detect bio-warfare agents, for instance, in the event of a terrorist attack. “I developed and tested bio-assays to detect toxins or spores of pathogenic microbes present in biological matrixes. In six months, we developed a rapid assay that could be used to detect pathogenic strains of bacteria, specifically Bacillus anthracis and Bacillus thuringiensis, at very low concentrations in less than 30 minutes,” she says.

She worked in the laboratory for two and a half years and then applied to Oxford University because she wanted to do more applied research.  She started research on assisted reproductive technologies on Oxford University’s new clinical embryology masters programme. She says she was motivated by doing something that could help people in her continent. “Even though sub-Saharan Africa is known for its very high birth rate, there are a significant number of people, including some in my family, who suffer from infertility problems. Due to the high cost of IVF treatment and the fact that treatment is not common, most do not get the help they need,” she says.

After the masters, she got a job as a research biologist at NIH and as part of her research she was generating multi-potential neural progenitor cells from developing human brain tissues, which her research group used for research on PML – Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a rare but serious demyelinating disease of the brain, often resulting in severe disability or death.

After a year and a half she decided she wanted to do a PhD and applied to study epigenetics at Cambridge. Carol, who is married with a two-year-old child, was due to start in October 2012 and had been doing some research before she started, but decided against taking up the PhD in favour of setting up JR Biotek.

Now she hopes to combine her research and running the company and make a difference to her continent’s development. She says: “The major challenge in Africa is funding among other factors. I want to provide quality training so scientists in Africa can be successful in their research projects. I know what they need because I have been there myself. I also want to work with smallholder farmers to educate them and provide them with the right tools and resources they need to increase their farm productivity. We need to start getting governments in Africa and international NGOs to pay attention to research and development, especially in the areas of agriculture and healthcare because that’s how innovation, which we so desperately need in Africa, can come about.”

Carol Nkechi Ibe

Carol Nkechi Ibe

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2015 PhD Plant Sciences
  • Newnham College

I was born in the United States but grew up in Nigeria, where I completed a BS in microbiology. In pursuit of a better education and career, I returned to the US and did a master’s in molecular biology and biochemistry with a specialization in biotechnology from the Georgetown University, and subsequently, a master’s in clinical embryology from the University of Oxford. During my studies at Georgetown, I became inspired to start JR Biotek, a life science education company that provides quality biotechnology and life science education, training and laboratory capacity building programs to students, educators and scientists in Africa. My vision is to help build a powerful workforce that can advance scientific research and innovation in Africa, especially within the field of agriculture. I am also very passionate about developing more effective and practical solutions to food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa, and this influenced my decision to study plant science. My PhD research will aim to determine the commonalities and differences during intracellular rice root colonization by both beneficial and detrimental fungi, and how these associations may be enhanced for practical agricultural applications. Rice is a major staple food in many African countries; therefore, developing rice cultivars with better adaptations to low-input rice agroecosystems is crucial for achieving food security in the continent. This is the ultimate goal of my PhD. I am deeply honored to receive the Gates Cambridge scholarship, a life changing award that would allow me to improve the lives and careers of many in Africa.

Previous Education

University of Oxford
Georgetown University

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