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Bioinformatics for East Africa: Spotlight on Toni Etuk

Building scientific computing expertise in East Africa with bioinformatics training.

September 03, 2018

Dr Anthony Etuk, a computer scientist at Earlham Institute, has been appointed to the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the East Africa Network for Bioinformatics Training (EANBiT) - helping to build capability and establish scientific computing expertise in the region.

Earlham Institute is passionate about disseminating not just research, but the skills to enable scientists across the globe to be able to tackle global challenges using big data-driven methods. The work we do is impacting researchers globally, from Colombia, to Vietnam, China and East Africa.

Toni Etuk, as part of the Davey Group here at EI, has been instrumental in delivering key training along with partners at JIC and the BecA-ILRI hub in Kenya, where his passion and skill for bioinformatics led to his appointment on the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) for the East Africa Network for Bioinformatics Training (EANBiT).

EANBiT is a network of three universities and four research institutes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, the aim of which is to build and develop a bioinformatics capability in the East Africa region. Piloted through a five week residential course designed to “train the trainers,” the network will train up and coming researchers over the next five years.

We met Toni, freshly returned from Kenya, who filled us in on the impact this network can have - and the importance of institutes such as EI in helping to train the next generation of bioinformaticians globally, opening up new research avenues and potential collaborations in the process.

Teaching facilities at Pwani University, Republic of Kenya

Teaching Facilities at Pwani University, Republic of Kenya

Hi Toni! Congratulations on your appointment to the SAB of EANBiT. How did this come about?

The opportunity to serve on the board came through the continued interactions between Earlham Institute and research institutions in East and Central Africa for capacity building.

In the last two years, I have been actively involved in several training workshops for bioinformaticians hosted by the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi, Kenya.

How can bioinformatics training help researchers in East Africa?

There is much enthusiasm for the acquisition and application of core bioinformatics skills in East Africa. I believe providing adequate training to meet such enthusiasm will greatly equip researchers in the region to help provide answers to the challenges facing the region. One of such problems being food sustainability.

Bioinformatics facilities at Pwani University, Kenya

Bioinformatics facilities at Pwani University, Kenya

What is the state of bioinformatics research in East Africa at the moment, and what is the potential?

Having been recently working closely with the community of bioinformaticians in the region, I see lots of potential. As I mentioned, there is that strong desire for people within the research community to learn and become experts in their respective fields. Such drive is always a good starting point.

In line with that, there are many international efforts, Earlham Institute contributing in this regard, to build and strengthen capacity. However, there’s still a lot to be achieved, primarily in the area of infrastructure. More can also be done by way of strengthening existing collaborations, and forging new partnerships, with established institutes internationally.

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...there are many international efforts, Earlham Institute is contributing in this regard, to build and strengthen capacity.

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Dr Anthony Etuk, Earlham Institute, UK

What’s coming up next in the pipeline?

In the coming months, the first batch of the five-year MSc programme should kick-off across the participating institutes.

One key component of the programme will be to source reputable institutes and laboratories internationally, where students in the programme can visit to acquire good practical exposure to state-of-the-art equipment and methods, as well as seasoned scientists who will act as as their mentors.

Laboratory facilities at Pwani University, Kenya

Laboratory facilities at Pwani University, Kenya

How important is it that institutes such as EI are contributing to training in this way?

I can’t over-emphasise the importance of existing links such as those established by Earlham Institute. In the last two years, the Davey Group have trained fellows in best practice in bioinformatics.

Such fellows, usually drawn from different institutes and universities across the African continent, but mostly from the East and Central Africa region, have gone on to become resource persons in their respective institutes. This is one of the ways that scientists in Africa can measure up to their peers elsewhere, to help solve some of the challenges we face globally.

Pwani University, Republic of Kenya

Pwani University, Republic of Kenya

What potential projects and collaborations might come out of this network?

There is always scope and opportunity to work with scientists in Africa to tackle the many challenges we face globally. I believe this network will prepare the scientists of tomorrow to take up this challenge, especially now that the world is turning to Africa on aspects such as food security.

There’s also the potential for exchange programmes. There are many ongoing projects to study the rich and diverse ecosystems across East and Central. I believe such projects can only be strengthened when there are sufficiently well-trained local scientists to work with.

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There is always scope and opportunity to work with scientists in Africa to tackle the many challenges we face globally.

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Dr Anthony Etuk, Earlham Institute, UK

What most excites you about this opportunity?

The opportunity to contribute in building capacity in the East African region and the African continent in general. I believe there is so much that scientists in that part of the world can bring to the global table. They can only do so if they are well-trained to do the job.

Did I also say I enjoyed my visit to Kilifi, which has some of the best beaches and popular resorts and hotels I have so far experienced?!

Kilifi beach, Republic of Kenya

Kilifi beach, Republic of Kenya

Article author

Anthony Etuk

Research Software Engineer