Delivering molecular biology training in Kenya and Nepal

Cesaree Morier-Gxoyiya, Delfi Dorussen and Tom Lock, second year PhD students at the John Innes Centre (JIC) completed their PIPS with MARPLE diagnostics (Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase) in Kenya and Nepal with the placement project being to train local scientists in essential molecular biology techniques and increase scientistic capacity at crop research hubs.

MARPLE is a partnership of international research partners providing real-time, point-of-care plant disease diagnostics and surveillance for complex fungal pathogens. The collaboration between JIC and partner organisations in Kenya and Nepal aims to bolster in-country scientific expertise and provide support to effectively implement the MARPLE diagnostics pipeline.

Tom said, “We are extremely fortunate to have had this once in a lifetime opportunity to travel around the world and deliver training in molecular biology. This unique PIPS placement allowed us to grow not only as researchers but also gain invaluable life experiences that will stay with us forever.”

MARPLE diagnostics has several hubs worldwide including the Kenyan Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) in Njoro, Kenya, and the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) in Kathmandu, Nepal. Cesaree, Delfi and Tom’s placement was an important step in improving the scientific capacity in these regions, helping to accelerate the global impact of the MARPLE project.

In mid-January 2024, the trio arrived at KALRO Njoro, Kenya. This centre for crop research primarily focuses on crop improvement through marker-assisted breeding and has a plant pathology department that aims to monitor and characterise emerging crop diseases in Kenya.

Under the leadership of centre director Dr Godwin Macharia, the many talented scientists at KALRO are undertaking pioneering plant pathology research on the front line of crop diseases threatening Kenyan agricultural systems.

Godwin noted, “Having the students on placement with us at KALRO was a fantastic opportunity to share new ideas and perspectives and continue to build on our long-standing link between our institutes”.

During their placement, Cesaree, Delfi and Tom had the opportunity to participate in a MARPLE diagnostics workshop delivered by Professor Diane Saunders, the project co-lead, and Dr Oscar Gonzalez from JIC, along with Dr Zennah Kosgey and Cyrus Kimani from KALRO Njoro.

This workshop brought together researchers from the MARPLE diagnostics hubs in Kenya, Nepal, and Ethiopia. They received training on the techniques required to carry out the MARPLE diagnostics protocol independently. Additionally, they discussed any issues encountered and engaged in horizon scanning for potential future activities.

After six weeks of delivering molecular biology training, running workshops, and providing hands-on technical support with ongoing projects, Cesaree, Delfi and Tom left Kenya for Nepal, arriving in late February. Although this visit was shorter, they had the same goal, to improve the scientific capacity at NARC by training scientists in molecular biology techniques.

Cesaree remarked, “Our time in Nepal was truly enriching, working alongside dedicated scientists in such a vibrant research environment, engaging in a wide variety of research projects.”

The trio worked closely with Dr Ram Khadka and his talented team of over 20 students on various projects, including research on citrus greening bacteria, root-knot nematodes, rice blast, and wheat yellow rust. Although challenging at times, this work was incredibly rewarding for both the PIPS students and the host organisations, highlighting the potential of international collaboration for technical capacity building in countries with limited scientific resources and access to practical training.

Delfi commented, “The placement really helped me to develop my communication skills, having to effectively communicate with researchers and students in Kenya and Nepal which required navigating different cultural norms/expectations and language barriers. I particularly enjoyed completing my PIPS with two other NRPDTP students as we worked collaboratively to solve problems we encountered at the local research centres.”

These professional internship placements were predominantly funded by a BBSRC Excellence with Impact award to the JIC and a BBSRC Innovator of the Year Award in the international category awarded to Professor Diane Saunders and Dr Dave Hodson (CIMMYT), alongside the BBSRC funded PIPS element of the NRPDTP.