By Juliet Mwaura, former RSIF Research and Innovation Grants Intern (July 2021-Dec 2021)
My experience while working with the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF) as a Research and Innovation Grants Intern was very positive. I had the most welcoming, helpful and supportive colleagues who were willing to guide me during the internship period. As I had not dealt with grants before, this internship taught me that adjusting to different situations in life is important and when you put in the work, a lot can be achieved. Gradually working with the team, I realized that they were very talented individuals, coming from diverse backgrounds and skillsets and were really passionate about the work they were doing. It didn’t take me long to get integrated into the team as everyone treated me as an equal contributor to the program even during chairing the team’s bi-weekly meetings. I hope that in future, I can find a team full of people just as encouraging and passionate about their work.
I got to learn a lot throughout the journey, through screening and eligibility checks of some of the projects such as Accelerating inclusive green growth through Agri-based digital innovation in West Africa (AGriDI), the PASET-RSIF MozSkills Subproject and Cohort 4 call for PhD Scholarship applications received, attending the Business Incubation Workshop for RSIF Innovation projects, Grants Independent Technical Committee (GITC) meetings held to select qualified projects to be funded, and virtually attending the 2nd Eastern Africa Bioeconomy Conference and RSIF Virtual Pre-Conference 2021. All these different aspects I was involved in helped me learn the different processes involved in ensuring that deliverables in the different components of providing Research and Innovation Grants are met.
After 6 months working together with the team, I have gained an enthusiasm for working on programs that promote and fund researchers to solve some of the complex problems that affect Africa especially in the areas of ICT including big data and artificial intelligence, food security and agri-business, minerals, mining and materials engineering, energy including renewables and climate change. I am particularly thankful to RSIF’s manager, for the confidence he had in me even as an intern to perform tasks, since interns are rarely involved in the day-to-day important activities in many organizations, unfortunately; and ensuring that we had a favourable working environment.
For future interns who will join the RSIF team, I would tell you; Always be curious and ask questions. Also, if you have a solution to something, say it. Show your creativity and don’t be afraid to take up new challenges. I’m so grateful for the opportunity and I look forward to what’s in store for me, perhaps in the future I will also apply for the RSIF PhD Scholarship and benefit from the great opportunity that has been created.
Dr. Noel Gahamanyi was one of the two first RSIF Scholars to graduate with a Doctorate of Philosophy degree on Friday, 26th November 2021 during the 38th Graduation Ceremony of Sokoine University of Agriculture, one of the RSIF African Host Universities (AHUs) in Tanzania. The Rwandese national, who was among the 15 Cohort 1 RSIF PhD Scholarship recipients in 2018, had their research under the thematic area of Food Security and Agribusiness, on “Assessing the molecular epidemiology and antimicrobial susceptibility profiles of thermophilic Campylobacter species from human and animal faeces in South Korea and Tanzania.” In the interview below, Dr Gahamanyi shares his PhD journey.
Q. When did you defend your thesis (Dates)?
A. I defended my thesis on 9th November 2021.
Q. What did it feel like at the moment you defended your thesis and after?
A. I was eager to share my findings with the panellists and was confident in the experience I acquired throughout my four years of study.
Immediately after being told that the panel recommended that I be awarded the PhD degree that I registered for, I felt relaxed and thanked God for being with me. I may compare the feeling I had to the one a mother feels when holding her baby after delivery.
Q. What was your study about?
A. The title of my thesis was ‘‘Assessing the molecular epidemiology and antimicrobial susceptibility profiles of thermophilic Campylobacter species from human and animal faeces in South Korea and Tanzania”. For animals, I collected faeces from cattle and layer chicken.
Q. What does your PhD mean to you, your Country (Rwanda) and Africa?
A. Being a PhD holder means a lot to me since I have been in Academia for over six years. However, you cannot become a full Professor without having a PhD degree. The knowledge and skills acquired through my PhD journey are important to my career as an expert in Molecular epidemiology and antimicrobial resistance. Also, with a PhD degree, I can work as independent researcher and apply for grants which is difficult for MSc Holders.
Since Rwanda is a land-locked country with limited resources and a shortage of PhD holders in higher learning institutions, completing my PhD program in the thematic area of Food Security and Agribusiness will benefit my country, which is a knowledge-based economy. I recently published a review paper on ‘Ethnobotany, Ethnopharmacology, and Phytochemistry of Medicinal Plants Used for Treating Human Diarrheal Cases in Rwanda’. This paper can serve as baseline for anti-diarrheal drug discovery or further research in this field.
Africa as a continent already benefited from my PhD work as I published a systematic review on ‘Prevalence, risk factors, and antimicrobial resistance profiles of thermophilic Campylobacter species in humans and animals in Sub-Saharan Africa’ which has already been cited 16 times. Also, Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a global threat and using One Health Approach, I hope to collaborate with other researchers to fight against misuse of existing antimicrobials and contribute to the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) especially the SDG 3 related to Good Health and Wellbeing.
Q. What message do you have for the RSIF students who are still pursuing their PhD?
A. With commitment, dedication, and honesty, you will achieve your goals. You should not be over-ambitious and remember that flexibility is required if you want to be successful. Dropping an objective or replacing it with another one should not be a hindrance to your progress. Also, you must make sure that the relationship with the main supervisor is near perfect. Finally, a balanced life is key to success as no one can be busy with PhD work all the time (24/7). If you like soccer or movies, you can schedule your activities and spare some two hours for your hobbies. There is a Latin saying, ‘Si isti et iste, cur non ego?’ which means ‘If others can do it, why can’t I?’ If I managed to do it, you can also do the same or do greater.
Q. What did it feel like to receive the Best Postgraduate Student Research Award and to Graduate?
A. Sincerely speaking, receiving the Best Postgraduate Student Research Award from Sokoine University of Agriculture was a surprise to me because I knew what I did in research, but was not aware of the publications made by other graduands. I was delighted to receive the award, which meant my contribution to the scientific knowledge was recognized.
A. The Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF) contributed to the completion of my PhD program in different ways. First, RSIF organized various training sessions on Information literacy, Reference management and Leadership among others, which PhD scholars need in their writing. Second, a memorandum of understanding (MoU), through RSIF, was signed with the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) to provide a two-year internship at the Natural Product Informatics Research Center, KIST Gangneung Institute of Natural Products. Last, RSIF gave me an opportunity to become confident through various presentations like the one I made in Kigali during the 5th PASET forum.
Q. What are/ were your expected outcomes of the research?
A. The PhD thesis had four outcomes that serve as a baseline for future studies:
(i) the usefulness of molecular techniques in emerging Campylobacter detection
(ii) the molecular epidemiology and antimicrobial resistance of Campylobacter from layers
(iii) the importance of some natural products as alternative to conventional antimicrobials in the control of Campylobacter infections
(iv) Whole-genome sequencing data of Campylobacter from layer chicken for better understanding the Campylobacter epidemiology
Q. What are your hopes and vision for your career ahead/ what do you hope to work on?
A. I have been in Academia and like the profession of teaching, so there is a high probability that I will go back to Academia. In Rwanda, there is limited work on Campylobacter species and their antimicrobial resistance profiles despite being one of the major causative agents of diarrhoea. Therefore, I am planning to extend my research in Rwanda and know the extent of campylobacteriosis in both humans and animals. Sooner or later, I will go for a postdoctoral fellowship.
Q. You led the RSIF student association – any advice on how to kickstart the RSIF alumni association?
A. I enjoyed leading the RSIF student association. Pioneers always put in a lot of effort to lay the foundation for the next generations. Regarding the RSIF Alumni, we are the pioneers, and hope that once the majority of Cohort I scholars have graduated, we will have a sitting and adopt some terms and conditions that the RSIF alumni association will be based on. I would advise the PASET-RSIF team to strengthen the RSIF alumni association as it serves as an inspiration to continuing scholars; that the completion of the PhD program is possible despite the difficulties faced.
Q. What are your Scientific achievements?
A. I discovered new sequence types (STs) including ST-10645, ST-10647, ST-10648 that were isolated from layer chicken in South Korea. During the PhD journey, I managed to publish six papers in high impact factor journals. I suggested some medicinal plants and phytochemicals that can be used in the treatment/control of campylobacteriosis and/or diarrhoea in general. I also showed that layer chicken are neglected sources of Campylobacter species that are resistant to commonly used antimicrobials. The obtained strains are freely available in international databases and can be accessed by other researchers working in the same field. I attended various international conferences where I had an opportunity to disseminate the research findings by oral or poster presentations. I joined different scientific communities like the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) and the Young East African Health Research Scientists Forum (YEARS) which is part of networking. The details of my publications can be accessed via my ORCID.
Q. Anything you would like to say to PASET/RSIF-RCU (Regional Coordination Unit)
A. I want to congratulate PASET/RSIF-RCU for the great initiative of training a pool of scientists from Africa with a mission to find solutions to the problems our mother Africa is facing. It is almost impossible to undertake the PhD program without funding especially in most of the low and middle-income countries (LMICs). The journey, however, is long considering the 10,000 PhD scholars to be trained. Therefore, efforts are needed in recruiting more qualified African Host Universities (AHUs) and International Partner Institutions (IPIs). I would like also to take this opportunity to ask the PASET/RSIF-RCU to continue supporting the graduates through the Alumni or by providing postdoctoral fellowships all aimed at capacity building of researchers from Africa.
Dr. Jean Nepomuscene Hakizimana, a Rwandese national who was among the 15 Cohort 1 RSIF PhD Scholarship recipients in 2018, successfully defended his PhD thesis on 30th September 2021 at Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), one of the RSIF African Host Universities (AHUs) in Tanzania. Dr Hakizimana is RSIF’s very first PhD Graduate. His research, under the thematic area of Food Security and Agribusiness, was on the “Determination of the genetic variation and epidemiology of African swine fever virus in selected countries of eastern and southern Africa”. Dr. Hakizimana has been offered a postdoctoral fellow position at Sokoine University of Agriculture which he is considering as an opportunity to start his research career. In the interview below, Hakizimana shares his PhD journey.
Q. What was your PhD study about?
A. The title of my Ph.D. thesis is “Determination of the genetic variation and epidemiology of African swine fever virus in selected countries of eastern and southern Africa”. A multidisplinary approach combining viral genomics, bioinformatics and social sciences was used to elucidate the socio-economic impact, transmission dynamics, genetic and antigenic diversity of African swine fever virus (ASFV) in eastern and southern Africa. Next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies allowed me to report the first complete genome sequences of ASFV in Malawi and Burundi, advancing our understanding of viral transmission, evolution, diversity and pathogenicity in eastern and southern Africa. A high ASFV genotypic diversity was observed and after phylogeographic analysis, several transboundary transmission events of the virus were observed. These findings call for a concerted regional and international effort to control the spread of ASFV to improve nutritional and food security, and livelihoods. Four manuscripts from my Ph.D. research have been published in high impact international peer-reviewed journals, including Viruses (Impact factor of 5.048, https://doi.org/10.3390/v13020306), Frontiers in Veterinary Sciences (impact factor of 2.245, https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.578474), BMC Veterinary Research (impact factor of 2.179, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-020-02536-8) and Tropical Animal Health and Production (Impact factor of 1.681, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11250-021-02877-y).
Q. You defended your PhD thesis on 30th September 2021, what did that moment feel like?
A. During my defence, I fully concentrated on my research work and sharing my accumulated knowledge on the topic with members of the Viva Voce examination panel. After the successful defence, it was a moment of immense happiness for the achieved milestones and for all the effort over the years. It reminded me of all people who supported me during my study to whom I am extremely grateful. In that moment, I realized that it was actually finished. I am most grateful to PASET and my government for supporting my PhD studies.
Q. After your successful defense, you were offered a postdoctoral fellow position to continue doing your research. What does that mean to you?
A. It is very exciting because it is an opportunity to further my research on viral diseases within a convivial scientific research environment. I will continue benefiting from the expertise of the Community of Practice for Viral Diseases of Food Security and Livelihood Importance at the Southern African Centre for Infectious Disease Surveillance (SACIDS Foundation for One Health) of the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA). The Community of Practice approach allows working with senior, peer and junior researchers from within Africa and Europe. The advantage of this platform, is that it allows collaborative research in a multi-displinary team of world-class scientists, allowing the scholar to be scientifically well equipped and ready to embark on his journey as an independent researcher and scientist. However, I wish to explore how my research and experience can more directly benefit my country.
Q. As a Rwandese, does acquiring this PhD mean anything to your Country?
A. The acquired expertise in genomics of transboundary animal diseases will be very useful to my country Rwanda and to the whole of Africa. The importance of genomic surveillance of viral epidemics has been particularly evidenced during the current COVID-19 pandemic. I am now an expert in pathogen metagenomics and bioinformatics. These skills are necessary for early detection and identification of pathogens, and a prerequisite to containing viral epidemics before they become unmanageable.
Q. What message do you have for the hundreds of RSIF scholars who are still pursuing their PhD studies?
A. Do not get discouraged by challenges on the Ph.D. journey, it is part of the training. By working hard, perseverance and the grace of God, you will overcome these challenges and emerge successful.
Q. Having successfully completed your PhD studies, share with us the general impression of your experience as a RSIF scholar.
A. After successfully defending my Ph.D., I consider RSIF as the best Ph.D. training program in Africa because it is an Africa-led program where Africans search for solutions to the most pressing challenges facing our continent. The sandwich component of the program allowing scholars to get access to more advanced infrastructures and expertise at an International Partner Institution (IPI) allows African researchers to build international scientific networks and obtain specialized training. This was evident during my Ph.D. where I worked with top researchers in Tanzania, Rwanda and from Belgium. In addition, the staff of RSIF Regional Coordination Unit at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) were very supportive during my studies.
Q. How does your current knowledge gained compare to what you imagined it would be like going into your studies?
A. The knowledge gained during my Ph.D. studies met my expectations. I have acquired specialized skills in pathogen metagenomics and bioinformatics along with the required international scientific network necessary for my professional and personal development. After a successful defence of my Ph.D., I am scientifically fully equipped to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution era and ready to contribute to containing viral epidemics in Africa.
Other stories aboutDr. Jean Nepomuscene Hakizimana
My research title is “Deciphering Biosynthesis of Bioactive compounds in African Cabbage (Cleome gynandra)”. I am working on this local orphan crop that is used both as a vegetable and a medicinal plant in promoting human and animal health. I will be profiling different accessions to determine the levels of glucosinolate secondary metabolites compounds present. Furthermore, I will evaluate the biological activity and applicability of extracts from the plants. The research results will promote useful neglected crops nutritionally and pharmacologically. The research is relevant in many parts of Kenya and across the continent, which has rich and diverse underutilized crops with great potential in food security and health. I am enrolled for my PhD at the Sokoine University of Agriculture, Africa Center of Excellence for Infectious Diseases of Humans & Animals in Southern & Eastern Africa (SACIDS), Tanzania. I am funded through the PASET RSIF Program. The prestigious RSIF scholarship covers the full cost of my PhD studies at Sokoine University and provides for my internship, including travel, at KIST.
Being an RSIF student has been both a challenging and rewarding experience for me. It has given me the opportunity to explore more than just my research topic objectives; and this has impacted a very significant amount of personal development and learning. I appreciated the chance to share my story and research interest with an international audience at the 5th PASET Forum in Kigali, Rwanda in 2019. The RSIF programme has also given me the opportunity to be mentored, to create connections with peers, to build worthwhile networks, to meet and hear from inspirational people with the focus of developing personal and professional goals.
My journey as an RSIF PhD scholar and female African scientist builds on my past achievements and passion for teaching. I was born and raised in a humble family in Kenya. In boarding school, I was shy, self-conscious, and became overwhelmed by the academic pressure. However, these challenges inspired independence and responsibility. My favorite subjects in high school were mathematics and sciences. In choosing to pursue a career in science, I draw inspiration from memories of my grandfather who used plant extract-based therapy to treat sheep suspected of having sustained snake bites. I obtained my Bachelors in Science (Bsc) in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Masters in Science Degree (MSc) in Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics, in 2011 and 2014 respectively from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Kenya. While studying, I conducted tutorial classes and practical sessions for undergraduate students. Through this experience, I developed a passion for teaching and upon graduation I worked as a teaching assistant. I started my PhD at Sokoine University of Agriculture in 2018.
The opportunity provided by RSIF to engage in the ‘sandwich’ program at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) has surpassed my initial expectations by enabling me to receive personalized advice that focuses on my needs and challenges. I am attached to a very vibrant group of aggressive scholars who are generous with sharing knowledge. This has been a plus point for the team since members are freely able to socialize and discuss about the PhD experiences, get help and advice that helps one improve in research and also make friends. The option of volunteering in the team’s projects has enabled me to challenge myself, a chance which has opened up in me qualities that I didn’t really know were there.My passion is in Biochemistry, Biotechnology and health. Using a “bottom up” approach, I strive to understand useful compounds in natural products. The recent technological advances have allowed smart cultivation of compound rich plants, their extraction, identification and evaluation in maintaining health of human, animals and plants. In combination I also use bioinformatics by integrating computers, software tools and databases in an effort to address biological questions.
My greatest challenges in this current period of my PhD collaboration in Korea is maintaining a healthy work–life balance by finding a routine that works best for me. In most instances I have had a lopsided schedule which has affected my social life. Occasionally, I have found myself with unfinished work as I try to run my objectives in parallel, however, through the supportive team of scholars, I have had the chance to navigate through. The greatest discovery I have made so far is that success means more if I move out of my comfort zone and challenge myself in new things that allow me to grow. I am assured that this decision to take up the RSIF PhD research opportunity will one day prove to be one of the most important and rewarding things I ever did with my life. I thank the Government of Kenya, through PASET RSIF for supporting my studies.
PASET, which is an initiative of African Governments, with support from the Government of Korea and the World Bank, aims at strengthening the science and technology capability of sub-Saharan African countries for economic development. RSIF is PASET’s flagship initiative and the first Pan-African science fund of its kind. RSIF will train applied researchers (at least 40% women), in sciences and engineering, build research capacity in sub-Saharan African universities and conduct research for Africa’s development. This initiative is timely as Africa responds to challenges such as COVID-19. RSIF competitively provides PhD scholarships for 3-4 years training for citizens of sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries at Host Universities in Africa, and ‘sandwich’ training at selected International Partner Organizations.
As soon as I completed my field work and portion of my laboratory work that I could do at Sokoine University of Agriculture’s Southern African Centre for Infectious Disease Surveillance – African Centre of Excellence for Infectious Diseases of Humans and Animals (SACIDS-ACE) in Tanzania, I was very anxious to start my PhD research internship at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST). The opportunity was made possible through a scholarship from the Partnership for skills in Applied Science, Engineering and Technology (PASET) Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund. The prestigious scholarship covers the full cost of my PhD studies at Sokoine University and provides for my internship at KIST.
The entry requirements to KIST were rigorous and each of us had to take part in documents screening, sitting for Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), an oral interview, as well as engage with potential researchers at the institute before being accepted. Five other students supported by RSIF were also accepted besides me. Sylvia Maina Wairimu, Mabwi Humphrey Andalo, and Sodedji Frejus, who are with me at the Gangneung Natural Products Research Institute, while Waema Maxwell and Emmanuel Kifaro are at the KIST main campus (Seoul).
PASET, which is an initiative of African Governments, with support from the Government of Korea and the World Bank, aims at strengthening the science and technology capability of sub-Saharan African countries for economic development. RSIF is PASET’s flagship initiative and the first Pan-African science fund of its kind. RSIF will train applied researchers in sciences and engineering, build research capacity in sub-Saharan African universities and conduct research for Africa’s development. This initiative is timely as Africa responds to challenges such as COVID-19. RSIF competitively provides PhD scholarships for 3-4 years training for citizens of sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries at Host Universities in Africa, and ‘sandwich’ training at selected International Partner Organizations.
As soon as I arrived at KIST, I was provided with a workstation, where I could place my belongings and computer. I immediately began an online Biosafety course on Living Modified Organisms (LMO), which I was informed, was a requirement for accessing laboratory facilities at the institution. The course was very useful and introduced me to the general principles on handling samples and instruments in the laboratory and other aspects of working in the laboratory. The course also included information on how to handle emergencies, such as accidents and, for instance, the use of the fire extinguishers in case of fire.
After receiving primers, master mix, and getting the required reagents, I was able to begin running my samples. My research is on Transmission dynamics and antimicrobial resistance of thermophilic Campylobacter in humans, animals, and the environment in Kilosa District, Tanzania. I am making use of Sequencing technology, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), Gel electrophoresis, and an ultra-violet Trans-Illuminator to view bands of amplified DNAs. The research is still ongoing, but I have already been able to prepare and submit a manuscript to a high quality journal. The research is of importance to my country and the wider Africa region.
Life at KIST Life at KIST has been quite interesting for me. But certainly not without challenges. Initially, I had trouble to express myself in the local language (Hangul). I have not started the Korean language (Hangul) classes yet, but with the help of my friends I am able to move around and buy what I need from supermarkets. I move around by local transport, usually by bus. This is not that different from Rwanda, where I come from.
After a busy day in the office or laboratory, I have access to KIST sports facilities including basketball court, table tennis and fitness room. The facilities are of high standard. I also meet up with other RSIF students every Friday evening for a one-hour prayer and socializing. Every Sunday, I attend a local church.
This has changed since COVID-19. For one, I now follow mass online and spend most of my time in the laboratory with little movement around campus and town. We are finding ways to cope with COVID-19. And most importantly, my research work continues.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to come to Korea and look forward to finishing my research and going back to Sokoine University in Tanzania, my home university, and then back to Rwanda to start my career. I have been able to meet students from many other countries, both in Asia and Africa. However, I am building strong friendships and partnerships, and when I go back to Rwanda, I will certainly remain in touch to continue with this and other research partnerships. For all the students here, we thank PASET and the Korea Government for the funding that has enabled us to be here. We believe that this internship will enhance the quality of our publications, academic programs and research projects.
 Joint between the African Host University and the International Partner Institution