CAREER COLUMN

How African scientists can give back to their home continent

Rafiou Agoro’s early-career experiences in France and the United States inspired him to mentor colleagues in Africa and those whose careers also took them overseas.
Rafiou Agoro is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of Medical and Molecular Genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. His research efforts are focused on the identification of therapeutic targets for bone and kidney diseases.

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Graduating students take selfies.

Students in Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire, graduate with a digital-sciences degree in November 2019.Credit: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty

I still recall my excitement when I started doing experiments during my master’s programme and saw a well-equipped laboratory for the first time.

I adapted easily to the theoretical aspects of my course at the University of Orléans, France. But my undergraduate training in Algeria, where I studied bioengineering, and my education in Togo, the West African country where I went to school, lacked practical training in research methodology and benchwork.

When I first arrived in France, I stayed with a friend of someone I knew in Algeria. After giving me a good meal (a standard welcome in Africa), he spent five hours advising me on how to open a bank account, locate my university department and find student accommodation. Because of his help, I quickly found an apartment on campus and developed a wide social network, including some fellow students from Africa.

Back in 2012, our first task on the master’s programme was to carry out a chromatin immunoprecipitation assay to detect protein–DNA interactions in the cell nucleus. I had amazing classmates who helped me to prepare the agarose gel and load my samples.

Because of these early experiences (which also included a move to the United States as a postdoctoral researcher in New York and later in Indiana, where I now live), I started dedicating some weekend time to mentoring other young African students.

I wanted to give back to my continent of origin, and to develop my leadership and mentoring skills. So Guinean mathematician and computer scientist Mohamed Cissé and I co-founded the African Diaspora Scientists Federation (ADSF), a network of scientists who have developed their careers outside the continent.

Our focus is mostly PhD-holders from Africa who, like us, are living abroad and working in biological sciences, chemistry, computer sciences, engineering, mathematics, medical sciences or physics. The ADSF aims to support mentoring relationships and help African scientists to connect and collaborate with each other.

It runs two programmes: Scholarships and Funding Opportunities, which helps students in Africa to apply for PhD scholarships; and the Science Experience and Career Path Exchange, which matches early-career researchers with mentors from our database. Currently, we have around a dozen mentors based in Canada, France, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom, and around two dozen early-career researchers, three of whom I mentor.

As a mentor, my hope is that the scientists I work with can learn from my successes and mistakes, follow their own path and reach their full potential. In my case, I wish I’d asked more in-depth questions about lab culture during job interviews earlier in my career, and about the availability of senior colleagues to offer mentorship, given their heavy teaching commitments for much of the academic year. I also wish I’d asked whether a lab technician could give advice and support during experiments. Overall, I wish I’d been more outspoken about my thoughts and ideas.

The ADSF partners with the Sub Saharan Open University, which works with us to identify people to mentor across sub-Saharan Africa. We also have independent affiliates from Ghana, Zimbabwe and Cameroon, who want to work with and learn from diaspora early-career scientists. We want to contribute to science in Africa, beyond the remittances we send home.

Resilience

As an African-born scientist, I understand the challenges caused by regular power cuts which can disrupt learning, and by studying at institutions that lack subscriptions to important scientific journals.

I want the people I mentor to understand that such challenges can help to develop a resilient mindset that is crucial for a successful scientific career. Science is full of unexpected results and failed experiments. Facing challenges early in our training can make us more creative during difficult times, and cultivate a ‘never give up’ mentality.

Communicating with members in Africa can sometimes be a challenge. Our group recently switched from video-conferencing tools, such as Skype and Zoom, to audio WhatsApp calls because of connectivity problems during our monthly sessions.

The pace of change in science, with fresh tools, technologies and data sets emerging all the time, can make it difficult for researchers, even experts in their field, to keep abreast of breakthroughs. I try to help the people whom I mentor keep up by showcasing publicly available tools, such as the US National Center for Biotechnology Information platform for finding genome information and relevant publications.

If you are an early-career scientist and a member of the African diaspora, you can help support and guide those back home. Volunteering for the ADSF is fun and does not require a lot of work. I encourage my colleagues to join: together, we can make a difference. You can contact us at contact@adsf.club.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02267-8

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