From Liberia to LSI, and back again

How can you teach undergraduate students about molecular biology lab techniques when you have almost none of the equipment now used in molecular biology labs?

That question brought researcher Kalilu S. Donzo from his home institution in Monrovia, Liberia, to the Center for Structural Biology at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

‘Start with what we have’

As an instructor at the University of Liberia, Donzo teaches molecular biology and biotechnology in one of the oldest institutions of higher education in West Africa — in a country where resources for research are scarce, if available at all.

Still confronting the aftermath of two civil wars in the past 30 years and the Ebola breakout in 2014 to 2015, “the government is focused on other things,” Donzo says. “There’s not much in science right now.”

But a lack of lab resources has not diminished Donzo’s desire to teach his students critical research techniques. When he found out about the U-M Presidential African Scholars Program (UMAPS), he knew it was the perfect opportunity to strengthen his own research skills and learn protocols that he could take back to Liberia.

The UMAPS program brings early-career researchers from African universities to the University of Michigan for residencies lasting up to six months. During their time at U-M, the scholars are paired with a faculty mentor and granted access to university resources to further their research.

Since its inception in 2008, the program has hosted 135 scholars from 10 African nations, including Abraham Mensah, who completed a research residency at the LSI in 2011-2012. Mensah’s research under the mentorship of LSI faculty member David Sherman, Ph.D., ultimately led to further research collaborations between LSI and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana.  

Donzo reached out to Clay Brown, Ph.D., scientific director of the high-throughput protein lab in the LSI’s Center for Structural Biology, to inquire about joining the lab as a visiting UMAPS scholar. His plan was to learn advanced molecular biology techniques that he could then adapt to provide his students with hands-on lab experience, using the equipment and technology is already available at his university.

“Back home, we don’t have sophisticated labs like here,” Donzo says. “But we can still do something — we can do some protocols that don’t need bigger equipment.”

“We have to start somewhere,” he emphasizes, “so let’s start with what we have.”

From the individual to the institution

Kalilu Donzo and Jim Delproposto working in the Center for Structural Biology at the U-M Life Sciences Institute

Donzo admits that his initial entry into the LSI was a bit overwhelming.

“To come into this kind of environment, where everything is available and the electricity is on 24 hours a day, it was just so big to me,” he recalls.

And after six months working with Brown and Jim Delproposto, a research scientist in the protein lab, Donzo was able to rattle off a lengthy list of the methods he’s studied: plating techniques, media preparation, protein purification, gel affinity chromatography, running a gel, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) — “basically any technique needed for molecular life sciences courses.”

“Now when I’m talking, you can see how much I’ve learned,” Donzo says. “These are huge things that required time. I’m just summarizing it in steps, but each of these steps required days upon days to learn.”

And that’s what the UMAPS program provides: dedicated time for the scholars to develop their research programs, further their work on an academic degree or complete other relevant activities. The program enables scholars become integrated into the international research community, advance their careers and then build capacity in their home institutions.

“The leaders of African universities want to retain their talented faculty and staff members, but they also want to provide skills and access to international academic networks,” says Kelly Askew, Ph.D., director of the U-M African Studies Center. “The UMAPS program provides those skills and access. So even if Kalilu cannot reconstruct the exact kind of lab available at the LSI, he now has the knowledge to be able to start building towards that goal — and that’s more than the university had before he came.”

During his time at the LSI, for example, Donzo began developing manuals and instructions to implement in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Liberia.

Brown worked with Donzo to ensure the manuals could be used not just for the current standard techniques, but also for pared down experiments that the lab technicians can perform with more basic equipment.

“It reminded me a lot of when I was a graduate student, when a lot of the equipment we’re using now was not yet available,” Brown says. “That was one thing that I pointed out repeatedly: A lot of the things we’re doing have been adapted to the new equipment, but the protocols themselves were developed before the equipment existed.”

Donzo plans to teach the molecular biology techniques in two stages at his university. He first will train the lab instructors in how to conduct the lab procedures. The lab instructors will then be able to teach the techniques to future instructors and students, building skills at multiple levels of the institution.

Something larger

Kalilu Donzo and Clay Brown, Ph.D.

Brown and Delproposto both express interest in working with future UMAPS scholars, based on the broad change and collaboration that such experiences can stimulate.

“It’s a good opportunity for the LSI to be involved in something larger,” Brown says. “And the potential impact is enormous.”

During Donzo’s final presentation for the UMAPS program, an audience member asked him how many people in Liberia can do these techniques. His answer: three or four.

“And that was including himself,” Brown notes. “So we could have an immense impact by training more scholars to do this research. It could really help develop not just education but also potentially the biotechnology industry, which could have a positive economic impact there.” 

For his part, Donzo hopes other colleagues from Liberia will have the opportunity to participate in UMAPS or similar programs, to help augment the expertise that he is bringing back.

“Science is about teamwork. It can’t be just one person,” he says. “If we could get two, three, four, five people all working together — that’s the way become successful.”

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Top Image: 2017-2018 UMAPS scholars, including Kalilu Donzo (fifth from left), with U-M President Mark Schlissel, M.D., Ph.D., and Provost Martin Philbert, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of the African Studies Center/Cindy Nguyen.