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My placement with Beneficial Bio: improving access to molecular biology

In this guest blog, PhD student Sam Witham describes his exciting PIPS placement working with Beneficial Bio in Ghana, running market research and training programmes designed to improve access to molecular biology.

March 23, 2020

In this guest blog, PhD student Sam Witham describes his exciting PIPS placement working with Beneficial Bio in Ghana, running market research and training programmes designed to improve access to molecular biology. As well as helping to share valuable knowledge and skills, Sam was able to use the three month placement to experience Ghanaian culture.

Capacity building is the focus in many of the projects at Earlham Institute. We have been active all over the world, from Vietnam to Kenya and Colombia, training the next generation of bioinformaticians in some of the world’s up-and-coming areas.

Hello, I am Sam Witham, and I am doing a BBSRC-funded NRPDTP PhD in synthetic plant biology in Dr Nicola Patron’s lab at the Earlham Institute. I study the architecture of plant promoters and how they function. An understanding of their regulatory code could be used in the future to create synthetic promoters, allowing the rewiring of gene regulatory networks in crops to increase yields. I spend half of my time writing bioinformatics pipelines and the other half in the lab testing promoter strength and protein-DNA interactions.

Beneficial Bio

Beneficial Bio is a not-for-profit startup, which uses a social franchise model to help establish bioproduction labs in countries where resources are limited. These labs produce low-cost reagents and off-patent enzymes to the local research community, improving accessibility of molecular biology. The products they sell will not only be much cheaper than imports from the US, Europe and China, but are also much more sustainable, have far faster delivery times and boost the local economy.

Knowing that I could take on an industrial placement as part of my PhD, I was inspired to pursue an internship with Beneficial Bio. I was elated when they brought me on board. I spent the first two weeks of my placement in Cambridge, where I prepared teaching material for my bioinformatics course, took photos of products to put on the website and learnt low-cost protein production lab techniques.

Beneficial Bio Ltd. is a Cambridge-based, not-for-profit biotech start-up founded last year by Dr Jenny Molloy and Cesar Gomez, funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation.

The enzymes they produce are lyophilised into powder form, meaning they can be stored for months at room temperature, negating the expensive cold-chain problem. Dr Jenny Molloy also runs Open Bioeconomy Lab (OBL), a research group in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge, which develops low-cost open source research tools and runs teaching courses. Beneficial Bio is working closely with OBL to achieve its mission.

Beneficial Bio conducts its R&D at the Biomakespace, a community lab in Cambridge, which is then implemented as a social franchise at MboaLab Biotech, a social enterprise in Cameroon. The company is also in the process of setting up more production labs in other countries.

MboaLab Biotech

In Ghana: teaching and market research

I flew to Ghana and spent 2 months based at the Kumasi Hive Hub, where the University of Cambridge’s Open Bioeconomy Lab recently funded a community biolab. My objectives in Ghana were to conduct market research for Beneficial Bio and to run teaching courses.

One of the courses was a week-long workshop teaching postgraduate researchers, including senior lecturers, molecular biology techniques to produce enzymes at a low-cost. The enzyme they produced was a DNA polymerase for use in PCR (polymerase chain reaction).

Feedback from participants was very positive, all indicating that they were much more familiar with both theoretical and lab based techniques following the course. A high number of participants also indicated that they would like to teach the course, which will be run in more countries soon. The plan is to release the content online for free alongside a low-cost DIY lab wiki explaining how to minimise lab costs and overcome problems.

Teaching bioinformatics

Teaching bioinformatics

I also ran a 4-week bioinformatics training course that aimed to teach students how to handle sequence data in command line Linux and Python - a course so high in demand that it was oversubscribed. The aim is to have an autonomous bioinformatics club running to allow students to keep practicing their skills.

Running teaching courses for Beneficial Bio was a great experience, it made me realise how much my skills have developed during my PhD, and allowed me to impart that knowledge without access to the high-quality teaching resources available at Earlham [Institute], making a real difference.

Building a shaker incubator for growing microbe cultures.

Building a shaker incubator for growing microbe cultures
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Running teaching courses for Beneficial Bio was a great experience, it made me realise how much my skills have developed during my PhD, and allowed me to impart that knowledge without access to the high-quality teaching resources available at Earlham [Institute], making a real difference.

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For the other aspect of my placement, I travelled with my colleague Harry Akligoh to the Volta region, where he showed me round his hometown Keta, from where we journeyed on to Ho. Here we conducted market research and interviewed several researchers at the University of Health and Allied Sciences (UHAS) and the teaching hospital. I also conducted a market research survey, from which we gained some very useful information and hopefully will be the start of a future collaboration with Beneficial Bio.

Another useful bit of experience I gained was in managing the Beneficial Bio social media platforms, another important aspect of marketing and brand awareness in the digital era. I was also able to advise on which products Beneficial Bio should sell based on researcher needs, and provided a financial projection recommending the prices of the products after factoring in cost of production, overheads and studying the competition.

Getting a taste of the local culture: good food and a great wedding

It’s important to experience life and culture when you’re in a new place, so during my time in Ghana I made sure to try as many different food dishes as possible (which was sometimes a challenge as a vegetarian!). The majority of the food I tried was from independent street food stalls, some of which contain a few benches or chairs if you’re eating-in. If you buy food on the go, it is often put loose into doggy bags.

My favourite dish was called ‘red red’, a type of bean stew cooked with plantain and palm oil which gives it its red colour. This hearty meal combines the sweetness of ripe plantain with the savoury stew, and is very moreish. I also enjoyed banku (a sour tasting fermented corn and cassava dough) with a gelatinous Okra stew, and fufu (a sweeter cassava and plantain dough) with spicy soup. Both are eaten with your right hand by breaking off dough and using it as a spoon to eat the stew/soup.

Banku with okra stew.

Banku with okra stew

Another favourite I have enjoyed is spicy jollof rice (made with a chilli and tomato paste) with vegetables/salad, and also a dish called palaver sauce, a green leaf stew of interesting flavours I haven’t experienced in the UK made with cocoyam leaves, yam and plantain.

I was also fortunate to have been invited to a traditional Ghanaian wedding, where friends of friends are very welcome. This was a unique experience, and a lot of it was accompanied by Ghanaian music played by a live band. The music was a mix of soul and reggae with African drum beats.

Traditional foods such as Banku and fish were served, along with non-traditional foods such as rice and noodle dishes. Drinks included a red hibiscus and ginger drink, pineapple juice and a millet drink. Several party games were initiated by the MC, involving balloons, shaking champagne bottles and dancing (I was singled out to participate in all of them).

The newlyweds had their first dance, followed by the bride and her friends taking to the floor. Before long, friends of friends - including me - were invited to join in. We formed a rotating circle and chanted in Twi, the local language (I had to make up the words), before breaking up to form the universal wedding dance of the conga. The whole day was a great social and cultural experience, and I felt privileged to be able to share it with them.

Many valuable lessons learnt

My placement has made me appreciate the good education I have had up until now, and value the skills I have learnt. Being able to pass on the things I’ve acquired was very rewarding, especially with the enthusiasm and good feedback received from the participants.

I have learnt to be more independent and adaptable, thriving in a country very different to the UK where things are much more spontaneous. I have also gained experience in conducting market research in a market very different to the UK, where consumers often have very different factors influencing their decisions.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my placement, and I wish Beneficial Bio the best of luck as they continue to make a real difference in resource-limited countries.

A fantastic group of people to work with

A fantastic group of people to work with
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Being able to pass on the things I’ve acquired was very rewarding, especially with the enthusiasm and good feedback received from the participants.

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Article author

Samuel Witham

PhD Student