Two years in Africa

Two years on from his time as CHRISTMAS LECTURES assistant, Dr Andrew Beale talks about his time working for TReND in Mozambique.

  • Official opening of the TrEND course in Scientific Writing and Communicaitons.

    Credit: Andrew Beale (front row, second from left) CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

Two years after I joined the team of the series of lectures that revolutionised science communication, I stood in front of a group of young African scientists ready to lead them through the importance and joy of communicating their research to the widest possible audience.

It’s been a funny old journey getting here: a combination of a love of science, a growing interest in international development and discovering the role of science, and a persistence to find a way to still be involved with science whilst living in rural Mozambique.

The journey began even before I joined the Ri when a friend, knowing that working in Africa was a realistic career move for my wife, Joanne, told me about an organisation called TReND in Africa (Teaching and Research in the Natural Science for Development in Africa, trendinafrica.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing about sustainable development on the African continent by supporting university education and scientific innovation. He invited me to a talk by one of TReND’s volunteers, who spoke about some of the ways in which TReND has been supporting university-level science education and the establishment of top-level research facilities. I spoke to the volunteer, Jorge, to ask, “Is there any way I can get involved? I might be moving to Africa in the future...”.

Another opening arose shortly afterwards – a chance to attend the first Science Africa Unconference by the Planet Earth Institute, then a newly-formed collection of development professionals eager to see the development agenda realise the value of scientific research and innovation. I heard about some of the scientific progress being made on the continent and the areas where evidence-based solutions were needed for challenges in health and agriculture, and participated in discussions on how science and technology can contribute to an improved society.

Then came the opportunity of a lifetime – to work on the CHRISTMAS LECTURES on a topic I loved, developmental biology. I jumped at the chance. I got the job. The wider world of science communication was open and I had the chance to learn from the experts. I learnt about the history of this home of scicomm, about Faraday, Sagan, Attenborough, the famous demonstrations and what goes into making live lectures work on TV. I discovered what makes science communication effective. I had fun!

Meanwhile, there was progress in moving to Africa: Joanne was talking with contacts in Mozambique about working on a rural water and sanitation programme. By the end of my time at the Ri I knew that I’d be moving to Milange, a small town in Zambézia Province, Mozambique.

It’s not exactly a place where lab experience from my time in research or my experiences working on the CHRISTMAS LECTURES were going to be directly useful, but I knew I wanted to stay connected to science and science communication. So I started to search. Once in Mozambique I found an organisation called AuthorAID, an online community and resource to help developing world researchers publish and communicate their work. I volunteered as a mentor and began to correspond with researchers all over the world. I found two researchers who wanted me to mentor them with the writing aspects of their manuscripts and since I arrived in Mozambique we’ve worked together on nine papers, two of which have already been published in international journals.

With this the worlds began to come together – could I combine my love of science and communication, the need for research communication skills in African science, and the experiences of TReND in running educational courses in universities to help (in a small way) the progress of science in Africa?

That was a year and a half ago. In the meantime, I officially joined TReND as a volunteer contact in Malawi and Mozambique; visited Chancellor College, part of the University of Malawi, who wanted to host and participate in a training on scientific writing and communication; fundraised through grant applications, crowdfunding, emails to companies and networking with Malawian businesses; advertised the course; navigated the logistical challenges of hosting with the help of my Chancellor College counterpart; and developed the teaching material. And, on the 7th of September, I began teaching the first TReND Scientific Writing and Communication course to 16 scientists from 6 African countries

 

  • Working on their feature article on malaria, Have we lost the war, which can be found at trendscicom.wordpress.com 

    Credit: Andrew Beale, TReND in Africa CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The course has been developed to target young scientists at the early stages of their careers. It aims to give them the skills and confidence to communicate their work both in the academic world (through scientific journals and talks) and in public. Though scientific writing is just a form of scientific communication, in this first course I roughly divided the week to look at the two aspects in turn. Scientific writing requires some specialist skills and so we started by really delving into what is needed to write a good journal article. But before writing, we started with how we read articles to give an idea where most attention is directed, helping us work out the purpose of each section and how that affects writing. As it is such an important component with a large audience, we spent significant time looking at the abstract. What makes a good one? What should it contain? How can it grab the attention of the reader? The abstract is really a journal article in micro – it contains a bit of introduction, some methods, the key results, and a discussion or conclusion of the work. If you understand this skill, you will be well on your way to writing good papers. I challenged the students to write abstracts for papers that had already been published but where I had blanked out the original abstract. It was a challenging but fun exercise and pleasingly most of the abstracts were better than the originals.

The second part of the week moved to look at the broader aspects of scientific communication – how to be part of a panel, how to write a newspaper-style article based on research, what is necessary in a policy brief to inform the movers and shakers, and finally, how to summarise your work for a public audience through Three Minute Thesis style talks. For most of the students it was their first foray into communicating science in a non-academic way. It was a steep learning curve but they came out with some brilliant efforts. It was fascinating to hear about their work in these various forms, each time learning a little bit more about the impact that their work will have. You can see some of their scientific communication on a blog which hosts their newspaper-style articles – they aren’t perfect, but they hopefully communicate an aspect of their research it in a way that a wide audience can appreciate.

It was an intense but enjoyable 6 days. The group forged strong relationships and the atmosphere during the course was excellent. In fact, they are planning as a group to work on a collaborative article detailing the challenges faced by young African researchers in the area of science communication. It’s a brilliant idea and a much needed discussion in this year of the Global Goals. I look forward to reading about their experiences and learning something myself.

The learning curve continues both for me and these scientists. With TReND, I hope that we can train more scientists like these in this area of science communication and see the amazing work they do understood and recognised by the wider world.

 

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