Synchrotron Techniques for African Research Technology (START)

An image to illustrate synchotron techniques for African research
© iStock/gilaxia

Diamond Light Source’s Dr Gwyndaf Evans and Professor Chris Nicklin and African researchers Drs Thandeka Moyo and Carmien Tolmie spoke with SciTech Europa about how the START project will benefit the African research community.

The START (Synchrotron Techniques for African Research Technology) project, is hosted by Diamond Light Source, the UK’s synchrotron, and will provide the African research community with access to a large scale research facility and collaborations with expert staff to enable them to make use of powerful techniques to understand their samples in greater detail.

While Diamond hosted the launch event for the START project in March at Oxford University’s Saint Catherine’s College, the project had in fact been active for around a year, with some African research projects already receiving grants through the initiative and generating early results.

Diamond Research Fellow Dr Gwyndaf Evans, Principal Beamline Scientist for VMXm, a micro/nanofocus Macromolecular Crystallography (MX) beamline aimed at atomic structure determination in cases where the production of significant quantities of protein material and crystals is problematic, met with SciTech Europa (SE) at the launch event, along with Professor Chris Nicklin – Diamond Principal Investigator – and Drs Thandeka Moyo and Carmien Tolmie, African researchers who are already benefitting from START, to discuss the benefits of the project.

Evans’s role in START was a result of him being the Principal Investigator (PI) on a structural biology proposal at Diamond some five years ago, which also involved looking at synchrotron infrastructure more generally in areas including South America, South Africa, Thailand, Iran, and China. Meanwhile, Nicklin was a PI on a project looking specifically at Africa. And while neither of those endeavours were entirely successful, they were both asked by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to bring their ideas together.
The funding available for START, which was the result of this, was significantly lower than the sum of the two halves, however, and so the scope had to be similarly reduced. As such, Evans and Nicklin decided to concentrate on Africa as, Evans said, this “seemed to be a more logical focus and the contacts that had already been made meant that it was relatively easy to begin the project; it is now a more focused proposal.”

Nicklin’s role, as the PI of the START project, was to bring the proposal together, gathering all the necessary information from the various people involved, and writing the strategy in order to obtain funding.

Development needs

START is an initiative which ties in very closely with the development needs of African countries, particularly with regard to Energy Materials – here, the project will help in the development of materials; improving photovoltaics, batteries, and catalysts, creating a better understanding of solid structures and thin films, and testing materials in challenging environments – and structural biology, with the project helping by addressing fundamental problems in diseases, understanding protein structures, working in pharmaceutical development, and developing biotechnology.

In order to ensure that START was designed to tackle the right challenges, Nicklin and his team approached the Synchrotron Research Roadmap Implementation Committee in Africa, who directed them to the researchers who could better inform the direction of the strategy. “Once this was achieved,” Nicklin told SE, “the project began to evolve almost organically.”

Building a coherent strategy

Evans approached the structural biology strand of the project in much the same way, before combining it with Nicklin’s work. While these initial efforts progressed with relative ease, based as it was on the foundations that the two researchers had already built in their previous separate endeavours, Nicklin explained that the main challenge was bringing this all together into a single coherent strategy. To solve this, he said, the focus had to change: “Initially, we had placed the emphasis on the scientific areas that were perceived as challenges, and while that is still included, we redirected the main focus so that it became more concerned with the techniques we were using. Given that we are all synchrotron users that seemed to be a natural path to follow.”

Evans added: “What we have in common is the desire to develop expertise in Africa and, indeed, to make this sustainable. As such, we are now working to build the foundations for that, which will be crucial moving forwards as it is simply not feasible for African researchers to continue to be dependent on access to infrastructure outside of their own country; there needs to be infrastructure in place where they are, as well as the experts who are necessary to run that infrastructure.”

This is something that Professor Trevor Sewell, Director of the Centre for Imaging and Analysis at the University of Cape Town (who spoke at the START launch event about how the project has stimulated structural biology in South Africa), has been working on for some time, with varying degrees of success. Indeed, in his presentation Sewell had highlighted how a ‘fear’ of an end to funding had resulted in some of his efforts coming to an end.

Building capacity

Evans said: “We are now in a situation where Sewell may be able to recruit and train up experts that he hopes will remain in Africa. One of the main concerns is that when the funding stops the activities stop too. But at the moment we have a great opportunity for both scientific areas – Energy Materials and structural biology – to create enough excitement and generate enough results that they may be able to act as a catalyst for more funding moving forwards beyond the initial scope of the START project.”

Nicklin concluded: “We have been quite open about the fact that this is a long term proposal and that we want activities to continue beyond the end of the START project in its current form; the collaborations we are establishing are life-long.”

While the Diamond team do not expect to obtain funding from African governments to continue this work – and, indeed, this is not something they were looking for – they do hope to be able to actively engage with them in order to help bolster the project’s future prospects. “The African governments can help in other ways than providing funding,” Nicklin told SciTech Europa.

Alongside this, the START project team will also engage with African non-governmental organisations (NGOs), whom they were introduced to via their existing contacts and networks. Nicklin explained: “To take the Global Young Academy as an example: we had contacts there because those involved in running those NGOs used to be involved in that, and so this was a way for us to become more aware of areas of importance in Africa, such as solar energy, for instance, which is currently only taking place at a relatively small scale due to issues around funding (and the fact that it is expensive to import the technology as it cannot be manufactured in Africa itself).

“On the structural biology side there is less involvement, but more potential. There are pharmaceutical companies in Africa that we would like to engage with, but that is an ongoing process as we work to grow the network.”

Education

As Sewell had also highlighted in his presentation at the START launch event, a significant emphasis needs to be placed on educating the wider African communities, such as the immunologists and those involved in pharmaceutical development. Evans commented on this further: “There needs to be a clear recognition of the contribution of structural biology across the board. And this comes down to training and to making people realise that this is, in many respects, now mature and accessible. Indeed, we are trying to make this technology accessible to anybody who needs to analyse proteins.”

The team at Diamond are working to establish a national research operation in Africa via the START project. This will be primarily achieved by providing funding that will enable African researchers to travel to Diamond, which Evans described as “a substantial centre of expertise”, so as to share that expertise and train post-docs and students effectively. He went on: “There is no substitute for being able to physically attend the facility and conduct your experiments in such a rich environment.”

Of course, once immersed in this expert environment, it is hoped that the African researchers will take this knowledge back to their home countries and share it with their peers, enabling a ripple-effect as knowledge is passed from one circle to the next. It is also envisaged that the UK team will visit the African research labs, disseminating their knowledge to the wider African community first-hand.

The future

Moving forwards, the START project will need to demonstrate its success if it is to secure additional funding beyond the original life of the initiative. However, the deliverables are yet to be truly defined. Evans explained: “We are working together with the STFC in order to define what ‘success’ actually means in this context so that we are then able to measure it. Yet, it is already clear that this will go beyond simply publishing papers and move more towards capacity- and capability-building, which is essentially the core aim of the global challenge programme.

“We have to be able to demonstrate that and while, of course, it is still important to publish papers, we need to show we are doing more than that. If we can do that, then we will be successful. We must remember that, in the long term, new and exciting projects will be emerging and looking for funding, and so we need to show that we are having a beneficial impact and that we have a plan for this to continue if we are to then have a chance at securing finances for the future; we cannot just be aiming to produce more of the same; we have to demonstrate that we are ready to move to the next stage.”

The benefits to African research

For those researchers in Africa who will be utilising the grants being made available through the START project, access to Diamond will be a real game changer. Until now, they have been required to either visit other synchrotrons, where it is difficult to obtain specific allocated beamtime, or send their samples with other teams who were traveling to a synchrotron as far afield as the USA.

Moyo told SciTech Europa: “It has always been incredibly difficult for us, if not impossible, to have our own allocated time at any given facility, meaning that we would be forced to piggyback on to other labs. And while this would mean that our samples would end up being studied, we would not have a timeframe for when this would happen – if at all – which made things difficult.”

“Alternatively, we had the option of using in-house diffractometers (instruments to determine the structure of crystalline materials), but these are quite weak and therefore don’t allow us to gather much data. This is why access to Diamond is so important to us.”

Evans then highlighted that there is an option for the African research teams to conduct structural biology experiments remotely: “This makes things substantially easier for researchers based in places like South Africa, as they experience significant problems when it comes to logistics; they just have to ship their samples to us and then the systems at Diamond allow them to log in from their own laboratory and do the experiment. A big part of our job here at Diamond is thus to provide the necessary training to scientists in Africa so that they are able to do that. This is crucial, because things which may seem trivial to us can become incredibly important.”

There are other challenges here, too. For instance, the researchers in Africa will need to find an appropriate shipping company who can deliver their samples to Diamond in an inexpensive way whilst also ensuring that they reach their destination intact. “This is an example of quite a simple problem that many people elsewhere will take for granted.” Evans added. “As such, a part of the START project will be to work to establish these pipelines.”

African infrastructure

As Evans had mentioned above, it is also important for African nations to develop their own infrastructure for use by their growing African research communities. However, while there is a sense that, in the long term, Africa might see the construction of its own synchrotron – perhaps in South Africa, Evans suggested – this is some time away. “If African nations have the ambition to pursue science technology-driven endeavours, then synchrotrons are essential. As such, it is almost inevitable that we will see the construction of a synchrotron in Africa one day. But, of course, that will involve a lot of discussion and co-operation – not least around where the facility will be located and how it will be funded.”

For Nicklin, this could be approached by employing a similar model to that at CERN. He told SciTech Europa: “One country could agree to predominantly fund it, with the other ‘member states’ providing contributions in return for guaranteed beamline time.”

While discussions around an African synchrotron are already happening, the general consensus is that that will not emerge for a decade or so, and that is not taking into account the time – he anticipates around an additional five years – for the actual construction of the facility. In the meantime, Nicklin and the Diamond team will be working to ensure that the necessary expertise within the African research community is there so that, when and if an African synchrotron becomes viable, the knowledge is there to both build and staff it.

Evans added: “From some of the discussions I have been party to, there are perhaps two schools of thought when it comes to the creation of an African synchrotron. For some, simply promoting the idea will be enough to catalyse the endeavour and to encourage people to further support the science that will utilise the synchrotron. Conversely, the view taken by some structural biologists is that it is important, in the first instance, to build the scientific infrastructure in order to then generate that capability and need, meaning that once the synchrotron appears the capabilities are ready to go and they can really capitalise on it.

“Generally speaking, there may be a distinct difference here between the physical sciences and the life sciences, in that the ease of access we are able to offer to the life sciences and the level of automation that we can make available means that accessing these facilities from anywhere in the world is far more straightforward. For the physical sciences, however, the experiments are generally more complex and diverse, they require more interaction, and they require the scientists to be present at the facility. This means that, in many instances, they have to ship their equipment half way around the world and so the loss of or damage to just one thing can be a significant problem.”

There may be differences between the life sciences and the physical sciences in this particular instance, but in a more general sense the two fields are working together very well at Diamond and, indeed, within the START project. And this is something that is already benefitting the African researchers who have travelled to the Harwell campus to use the UK’s synchrotron. Moyo concluded: “There is a lot of interaction between the life sciences and the physical sciences, and we are working together in a number of areas where we are already seeing a cross-fertilisation of ideas. This creates a win-win situation that will only be of continued benefit moving forwards.”

Dr Gwyndaf Evans
Principal Beamline Scientist, VMXm
Diamond Light Source
Professor Chris Nicklin
Principal Investigator
Diamond Light Source
Dr Thandeka Moyo
University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg
Dr Carmien Tolmie
University of the Free State
Bloemfontein
Tweet @DiamondLightSou
www.diamond.ac.uk/Home.html

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