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Report on our recent conference in The Gambia

From December 3rd to 5th, 2019, SRA organised the West African Bioinformatics and Open Lab Drug Discovery Conference, hosted in Banjul by the Medical Research Council The Gambia at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. With the key themes of providing an accessible scientific education to students from across Africa and promoting improved health understanding, the event tied directly to SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 3 (Health and Wellbeing), SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities) and SDG 17 (Partnership for the Goals).

Fifty-five delegates from nine countries across West Africa attended, including Benin, Sierra Leone, Togo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, and The Gambia. The delegates had a wide range of backgrounds, including medical doctors, computer science undergraduates, nurses, and bioinformatics researchers. All participants applied through a competitive process and all were funded by partial or complete scholarships. Demonstrating the draw of the event and the commitment of participants, one delegate travelled overland from Freetown to attend the conference, a journey that took him three days (we paid for his one hour flight back!).

The first day of the conference centered on keynote presentations, including those from the Director of the MRCG, the UK High Commissioner to The Gambia, the World Health Organisation The Gambia’s lead for Disease Prevention, and the MRCG’s Director of Immunology Research. The highlight was a captivating talk from Professor Sir Tom Blundell, former Director of the University of Cambridge Biochemistry Department, Science Advisor to Margaret Thatcher, CEO of Astex Pharmaceuticals and author of 650+ research papers, including 30+ in Nature. Sir Tom’s involvement in the event has led to numerous immediate opportunities for the MRCG, including additional support from his funding networks in the UK and collaborations with the University of Cape Town.

The subsequent two days of the conference consisted of a series of workshops for all delegates, led by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the CRI Paris. Prior to the event, delegates selected their preferred workshop options, which included structural bioinformatics, comparative genomics, and systems biology/drug discovery. This diverse course offering provided delegates with a combination of computational and wet lab experiences on the topics most relevant to their work. For approximately half the delegates, this was the first time that they had engaged in-depth in these topics. Coffee breaks, lunch sessions, and an all-delegate dinner also provided ample opportunities for participants to network with fellow researchers from across West Africa. A further benefit was the multilingual capabilities of the attendees; for example, the Brazilian University of Cambridge researcher was able to conduct his structural bioinformatics workshop in Portuguese for Bissau Guinean delegates and Cameroonian participants spoke in French with those from Senegal, Benin, and Togo.

The workshop was generously supported by a wide range of donors, including Mott MacDonald. The most significant financial support came from The Royal Society and Cambridge-Africa Alborada Trust, with additional support from leading universities and health foundations, including the University of Cambridge, Wellcome Trust, CRI Paris, EMBL-EMI, and the Africa Research Excellence Fund.

The event was also filmed by The Gambia’s official broadcaster and aired on the evening news, with the three-minute clip available online here:

Thank you to everyone involved, especially the team at the MRC Unit The Gambia. We look forward to seeing more of you in 2020!

From left to right, Dr Umberto D’Alessandro (Director of the MRC Gambia), Dr Bridget Bannerman (Director of SRA), a student from Sierra Leone, H.E. Sharon Wardle (UK High Commissioner to The Gambia), Mahmoud Gebeesay (Sierra Leone BSc student), David Orr (Mott MacDonald/Science Resources Africa), and Dr Abdul Sesay (Director of MRCG Genomics).

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