World class research in the heart of Africa: the BecA-ILRI Hub experience

by Laban Turyagyenda, Agronomist – National Agricultural Research Organization, Uganda

Laban Turyagyenda works   in a molecular laboratory at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi

Laban Turyagyenda works in a molecular laboratory at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi

I have always dreamt of conducting research in a state-of-the-art laboratory facility. I just never imagined that I would find a world class laboratory barely 700 kilometers from home!

I had just started working with the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) in Uganda as Research Officer/Crop Agronomist in 2010 when my mentor, Dr. Tukamuhabwa Phinehas, a senior Lecturer at Makerere University advised me to apply for a PhD scholarship by the Millennium Science Initiative (MSI). My application was successful and I was awarded a scholarship to do my PhD studies in Plant breeding and Biotechnology at Makerere University under a project called “Targeting Gene-Based Markers Associated with Drought Tolerance Mechanisms for Cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) Breeding”.

When I started the PhD programme, I found that 75 per cent of my research work involved molecular research, an area in which I had very little experience. Besides, the molecular research facilities at Makerere University at that time were not very established. I needed to get a placement at a well-established molecular laboratory on a tight budget. After weighing several options, the project team decided that the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub was the place to go. This decision was based on several factors – students who had previously been to the Hub returned with greatly enhanced research capabilities; the Hub was known to have very experienced research team including key scientists from institutions within Africa and around the globe; and the world class laboratory facilities were relatively affordable and accessible.

What made the BecA-ILRI Hub special?
I joined the BecA-ILRI Hub family in May 2010 with two research objectives to accomplish at the hub i) to determine the genetic diversity among a collection of genetic resources of Ugandan cassava using Simple Sequence Repeats (SSR) markers; ii) to identify candidate drought tolerance genes in cassava using Real Time polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

I had elementary molecular research experience and had never worked in such an advanced facility before but within one week, after orientation by the research technician assigned to work with me, I was able to begin my molecular work. The culture at the Hub was one of mutual support and the community of scientists and students both regional and international exposed me to diverse skills. I took advantage of this opportunity to interact and discuss new ideas for advancing my research with recognized scientists.

My weekly meetings with supervisors and technicians to review my research progress made it easier to identify and collectively deal with any challenges that were likely to hold me back. It was not only scientists and technicians who made my placement a success, but also the administrative and support staff who always gave a helping hand when I needed it.

The greatest challenge I faced was a limited budget for my placement at the Hub which meant I could not afford accommodation at the campus, reducing my time spent in the laboratory and limiting the activities that could be done as part of my research. Fortunately, the BecA-ILRI Hub has since put in place a competitive fellowship program to provide fully funded placements for African scientists.

Taking my research into the future
As a result of my research at the BecA-ILRI Hub from May 2010 to July 2011, I was able to accomplish the two objectives I had set out to achieve. I determined the genetic diversity among Ugandan cassava germplasm using SSR markers and published the results in African Crop Science Journal (http://www.ajol.info/index.php/acsj/article/view/78715). I also identified ten genes that affect response to drought in cassava, four of which are reported to be involved in the enhancement of drought tolerance. These findings on candidate drought tolerance genes in cassava are published in an article in AoB Plants, an Oxford Journal (www.aobplants.oxfordjournals.org or http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3604649/) and has been ranked the most read and downloaded Research Article in the journal (http://aobpla.oxfordjournals.org/reports/most-read).

Laban Turyagyenda measures soil moisture content with digital soil meter in a greenhouse at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi

Laban Turyagyenda measures soil moisture content with digital soil meter in a greenhouse at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi

The publication of these two articles has facilitated my successful thesis defense for a PhD in plant breeding and biotechnology but more importantly, the materials and methodologies used in my research have been integrated into the cassava breeding program in Uganda. A research initiative to develop cassava varieties tolerant to drought has been initiated based on results from my research and I have been assigned two MSc students to supervise in research on drought tolerance in cassava based on the skills and knowledge obtained from BecA-ILRI Hub. My placement at the BecA-ILRI Hub was a major step towards my carrier development and I have recently been appointed as Programme Leader for Crop Research and Development Program at NARO, Mbarara.

Acknowledgements
I am grateful to my sponsors MSI and NARO. Sincere thanks to my supervisors, Prof. David S. Osiru, Makerere University; Dr. Elizabeth Balyejusa Kizito, Uganda Christian University; Dr. Morag Ferguson IITA; Dr. Jagger Harvey, BecA-ILRI Hub; and Prof Morris Agaba, BecA-ILRI Hub and Nelson Mandela African Institute for Science and Technology for their constant guidance and constructive criticism. Special thanks go to Dr. Kizito and Dr. Ferguson for supplementary financial assistance that enabled me to complete my laboratory work. Last but not least, I am grateful to the BecA-ILRI Hub staff especially Inosters Nzuki, Bramel Wanjala, Mercy Kitavi, Moses Ogugo, Cyrus Too, Moses Njahira and Martina Kyalo for their assistance during implementation of laboratory work.