Research laboratory capacity

Research laboratories play a vital role in generating and fostering research in sub-Saharan Africa. Strengthening laboratories’ capacities in low- and middle-income countries is a continuous process which requires active involvement of many key players involved in institutional research support systems, and nationally and internationally through collaborations and securing funds to support the advancement of laboratories’ capacity.

Opportunities: Benard's story

Benard Goga is a laboratory technologist at the chemistry department, Maseno University. One of Benard’s main roles is assisting the undergraduate and postgraduate research students (including one of the ACBI PhD students) with their laboratory-based renewable energy-related research.

The principal investigators of Benard’s consortium spotted an opportunity to train him in glassblowing and to equip his laboratory in Kenya with glassware bending and production. As a result, Benard spent three months learning glassblowing techniques in a specialised laboratory at the University of Nottingham. Benard is one of few technicians offered a transformative opportunity for an exchange visit to the UK through ACBI.

Benard expressed much gratitude for the training opportunity, describing the exchange visit as a “miracle” as he had previously had almost no opportunity for professional development. He was overwhelmed by the overall experience and recommended that such opportunities should be considered by other institutions across the ACBI consortia.

“When a scholarship or a sponsor come to our department, people usually think about students and lecturers. They don’t think about technicians. So a technician can struggle to go to class with little money… Recognition of technicians is not there. We are being neglected…it’s a challenge that we are facing… It’s the first time in Maseno history when I was taken to Nottingham University to study glass blowing technology… I was assisting our student to my level best as technician in charge…then this opportunity came… I think the PIs discussed the best ways of – one: to empower, the capacity building was to empower a technician for the first time – to me it was a miracle and I was very much happy for sure…; second: we want to solve the problem of glasses in our university because some of the glasses we are using to do the practicals are very expensive and maybe if we want to bend the glass for an experiment to fit the kind of research we want, we do not have this kind of technology [at our labs] … I was considered because I was working with a PhD student [ACBI-affiliated], and they were considering who can go do it and bring the technology home… so that we can establish glassblowing lab in our department…”

Unanticipated learning

Besides gaining new technical skills in glassblowing, Benard highlighted some of the unanticipated learning and benefits he acquired during his exchange visit. These included best practices in health and safety, laboratory management, handling chemicals, networking, and establishing good relationships with other laboratory staff in the UK.

“In Nottingham before you go into any lab there is eye protective gadget you can wear goggles. Nottingham it is the first thing you are meeting at the door. Gloves are everywhere. You can’t be in the lab without lab coat.”

He deemed such training and experiences as highly valuable, not only for motivating individual laboratory technicians and for strengthening their capacity, but also for their own laboratories and institutions.

“ going to Nottingham was the best thing which the DFID (FCDO) project had thought of…. I really recommend this even if it is not only to the glassblowing technology. I recommend it because when you get exposed, you learn many things. Apart from the training I got in the lab, that was the first time I saw a standard lab with everything you require. In fact, by the time I was coming from Nottingham and going back to Maseno it took me some time to fit back into our system.”

Changes in laboratories’ rules and regulations

Upon his return to Maseno, Benard shared his learning with the chairman of the chemistry department and suggested ways to improve laboratories’ health and safety measures to protect against dangerous chemicals. Benard has witnessed serious laboratory accidents and is keen to make laboratories a “safe place”. 

“Now from what I learned in Nottingham, I’m now tightening the rules to the student in my research lab, because I’m responsible for the lab…Now, before you bring me a letter, because usually, they write a letter so that I give them the space in the research lab, I insist, and we agreed, and there is a form being signed, that you’ll not work in the lab without a lab coat, without wearing the eye-protective, because we have some which we had given the researchers. When I was in Nottingham it became part of me. I feel it SHOULD be done – not like before.”

Equitable relationships

Benard addressed the importance of equitable relationships between laboratory technicians, students and supervisors or principle investigators. He praised the dynamics of such relationships at the University of Nottingham where he was working.

“Everybody was respected. Everybody was doing the right thing. Technicians were motivated. They were working for students... They are freely willing to help. Students also respected them. …when I went to Nottingham, I found my chair, where I was going to work, ready waiting for me. They put everything in place. I had my working corner, I had my glasses, I had my lab coat. Everything was ready and the communication was, if it is not 100% it’s 99%.”

Benard admired acts of kindness and appreciation that occurred between those in higher position such as a senior researcher and laboratory technicians giving the example of a professor who praised the hard work of laboratory technicians and encouraged them to strive for career progression. “To me, I think that’s the best thing if we can do to technicians, it can motivate them. To me, that alone is enough to motivate me.”

Bringing the learning and technology home

Upon his return, Benard submitted a report about his visit and suggested recommendations for the new glassblowing laboratory. The University of Maseno had already identified a laboratory and is currently in the process of refurbishing it for the glassblowing work. The University of Nottingham donated a full kit of glass blowing equipment and enabled shipping to Maseno.

“As we are talking today, we have the glasses, and we have the burner. The only challenge which we are still having is the preparation for the laboratory for the glass blowing because with glass blowing you cannot do it in any lab. You need to build a chimney for removing the mono-nitrogen oxides outside of the lab because when you inhale them, they become poisonous to you…so as we are talking we are at the process of doing that, but soon we will start a glass blowing laboratory in Maseno…there is a process going on. I have the tool, I have the glasses, we are just waiting for the completion of the renovation of our lab. There is lab which was identified by the university. The only challenge which we have is that the public university process is slow…” 

The lead researcher at Maseno University has provided assurances that the set-up of the laboratory will be prioritised once they emerge from COVID-19 disruptions.