RISE prepares PhD- and MSc-level scientists and engineers in sub-Saharan Africa through university-based research and teaching networks in selected disciplines, in order to strengthen research and teaching in African universities and build capacity in science, technology and innovation as a key to economic development in sub-Saharan Africa.

The RISE scientists, academic leaders, and administrators are at the heart of our project. These are their stories.


SABINA Organises VRE Training for New Students

by Kennedy Ngwira, Cyprian Mpinda, and Aneth David

August 2014

The SABINA project leadership recently organized a training workshop for the new phase three students, from 15-18 July 2014 at the University of Pretoria. The students who attended the training were: Aneth David, Cyprian Mpinda, and Robert Christopher from the University of Dar es Salaam; Sunette Walter and Hatago Stuurmann from the University of Namibia; Lucia Kabanga from the University of Malawi; Tinotenda Shoko from the University of Pretoria; and Jean Dam and Kennedy Ngwira from the University of the Witwatersrand.

The workshop, ably facilitated by Dr. Martie van Deventer and VRE Coordinator Caron Jacobs, was aimed at introducing the new students to the VRE platform and Document Management System (DMS). The training was an eye-opener to the students; working in a secure online environment was a new concept for them. It is anticipated that the students will be able to organize their research projects online; engage with each other, their supervisors, and other SABINA staff on various discussion forums; and, most importantly, manage their raw and processed data on the DMS.

Apart from the training, the students had one-on-one meetings with SABINA Academic Director Dr. John Becker and assembled as a group to meet with Dr. Mervyn Beukes, the SABINA student liaison. They were also taken on tours of the laboratories in SABINA’s South African institutions. The students visited the University of the Witwatersrand, where Professor Charles de Koning gave the students a tour of the facilities. At Wits, they visited the new, upgraded organic research laboratories, the NMR and crystallography facilities, and the newly built Science Stadium. At the University of Pretoria, Professor Vinesh Maharaj showed the students the NMR facilities, the crystallography unit, and the UPLC and GC-MS facilities. The students also had the privilege of attending a public lecture by Nobel laureate Professor Brian Kobilka, entitled “Challenges in drug discovery for G protein coupled receptors.” Finally, the students visited facilities at the UP Biochemistry Department where they learned about some of the research being done in the molecular biology and microbiology laboratories. This tour was guided by Dr. Mervyn Beukes and Professor Zeno Apostolides. An end-of-the-week braai was a wonderful way for students and staff to interact informally after the training.

Reflecting on the workshop, Aneth said, “The training was very useful; the facilitators went out of their way to make sure we all grasped the concept of the VRE, a very important tool for modern-day scientists.” The same sentiments were shared by Sunette, who said, “I now enjoy using Alfresco, the document management system (DMS). It’s a good way to back up my research data and other important documentation.” Lucia appreciated that the training gave her an opportunity to meet and interact with fellow SABINA students. Of particular importance to her was the file-naming convention article, which will help her to manage her files in the DMS.

The training workshop was both worthwhile and enjoyable for the new SABINA students. The students are grateful to SABINA leadership for arranging the VRE training and facilities tours, with special thanks to Caron Jacobs, Dr. van Deventer, Professor de Koning, Professor Maharaj, Professor Apostolides and Dr. Beukes.

Building Capacity for Research and Training in Tanzania (SABINA)

by Anita Makri, SciDev.Net

Quintino Mgani is professor of chemistry at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He also coordinates the SABINA (Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products) network of the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE), which is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Mgani explains why PhD students need regional partnerships, how growth in Tanzania’s higher education sector undermines training capacity and what gets in the way of turning research into useful products.

This article is part of the Spotlight on Making higher education work for Africa.

Milestones of Molecular Biology (SABINA)

by Sunette Walter

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Congratulations to Sunette, who has been awarded second prize in the Biotechnologist’s first annual writing competition for her essay on the “Milestones of Molecular Biology”. Her prize includes a gift and certificate of achievement.  Well done, Sunette, for pursuing a passion and pushing your writing!

May 2014

The concept of the “central dogma” was enunciated by Crick in 1958.  Since then, it can be regarded as the keystone of molecular biology (Crick, 1970).  For those not familiar with the concept – “The central dogma of molecular biology deals with the detailed residue-by-residue transfer of sequential information.  It states that such information cannot be transferred from protein to either protein or nucleic acid” (Crick, 1970, p. 561).

In 1970, it was Crick’s opinion that the discovery of a single type of cell which could perform any of the unknown transfers, as assumed by the central dogma to never occur. would shake the entire intellectual basis of molecular biology.  These unknown transfers are: Protein→Protein; Protein→DNA; Protein→RNA (Crick, 1970).

Proteins are inevitably encountered in everyday life.  In fact, those of us who took biology in school were taught that proteins are “building blocks of life”.  Uhlén et al. (2005) compiled an antibody-based protein atlas for expression and localization profiles in 48 normal human tissues and 20 types of cancers.  At the time, this information was publically accessible from a database containing approximately 400 000 images corresponding to more than 700 antibodies toward human proteins.

In a press release at the end of last year by Uhlén and Kampf (2013), it was announced that the Human Protein Atlas reached a huge milestone by releasing protein data for more than 80% of human protein coding genes and RNA expression data for more than 90% of the genes.  All information is now available from www.proteinatlas.org in four separate sub-atlases: Normal tissue atlas, Subcellular atlas, Cell line atlas and Cancer atlas.  According to Professor Uhlén (2013), RNA transcript data and a map of gene expression for 27 different organ-specific tissues allow researchers to classify all human protein-coding genes into those coding for house-keeping functions (present in all cells), as well as those genes that are tissue-specific (expressed in certain organs and tissues, for example the kidneys, liver, brain, heart and pancreas).

Still on the topic of proteins and genes – Schwartz and Chen (2013) wrote a paper to give a brief overview of the immense progress that has been made in identifying alterations in the human genome and associating them with human disorders.  In this paper, they mention various online software packages, gene prioritization tools and websites that can be really useful in molecular research.

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