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Samson Kinyanjui: How I got into training and capacity building

13 Apr, 2012
Illustration of Dr Samson Kinyanjui

An illustration of Samson Kinyanjui. Credit: Bret Syfert

As head of training at the KEMRI–Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya since 2008, Dr Samson Kinyanjui has overseen rapid growth in support for young African scientists. His vision extends further, though, as he hopes to help establish research networks to encourage scientists across Africa and build the continent’s future research capacity. He talks to Michael Regnier.

In 1998, I was one of just two PhD students working in the KEMRI–Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya. By the time our five-year, £8 million Wellcome Trust Strategic Award for capacity building ends in 2013, we will have 50 PhD students, most of whom will come from Kenya and other East African countries.

My interest in training and capacity building developed from the very start of my own career and my PhD on the natural history and immune response to malaria, which was supervised by Professor Kevin Marsh, Director of the Programme, and Professor Chris Newbold at Oxford.

Some of my colleagues in Oxford were working on molecules relevant to malaria without ever having seen a patient with the disease. Scientifically, that is fine, but I tend to be a ‘big picture’ person: malaria is an issue of poverty, of the health system – you need more than just research into molecules. We need more African scientists with first-hand experience of the health challenges in our communities.

Malaria research is a productive area in terms of research from Africa but it is a blip in otherwise low scientific productivity. After a Wellcome Trust training fellowship in London, looking at how malaria parasites enter human red blood cells and how the immune system responds to the parasite proteins that promote this process, I went to Addis Ababa to work with the African Union.

I wanted to find out how we could increase the output of African science in more research areas. My conclusion was that we needed greater promotion of capacity building in health research at the ground level before we could expect to implement a systematic, continent-wide approach.

That was when I decided to step outside the lab and take up my current position. As well as taking care of all training activities here, including planning and administration, I have a strategic role developing training programmes and support for our PhD students after they finish their courses. We are training lots of people but we cannot retain them all, so I am building links with universities and other scientific institutions in East Africa so that we can run joint programmes, or continue to collaborate with the people who move elsewhere.

People often ask me if I miss the lab, but while it is true that I am no longer physically pipetting at the bench, I am still very much a part of the research effort. I help the students in writing their proposals and applications for fellowships, and I actually have to read more widely in science than I used to because of the breadth of research our students do. I am also on the Scientific Coordinating Committee and I chair our Consent and Communication Committee.

We are training more and more PhD students in African institutions but we need to think about the strategy for them after they have got their PhDs. We want to retain these people in research and in Africa. Therefore it is extremely important that we see capacity building as going beyond training.

Africa also lacks capacity in advocacy for science. We need to communicate the importance of African research to the public and the politicians if we are to attract funding and support. This is the only way we can build a sustainable critical mass of African research leaders in the future.

This feature also appears in issue 70 of ‘Wellcome News’.

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