African Centers of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Data-Intensive Science 2022 Annual Consortium Meeting – Student Showcase
Remarks by U.S. Ambassador Natalie E. Brown | September 13, 2022
Infectious Disease Institute, McKinnell Knowledge Centre, Makerere University
Kampala, Uganda | (As prepared for delivery)
Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here with you. I am honored to open the Student Showcase of the African Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics or ACE Annual Consortium Meeting. Today, we gather to celebrate the work of ACE students from across the African continent. Thank you for coming to show your support for the important work this next generation of scientists is doing.
The United States Government has been supporting academic and cultural exchanges between the United States and the African continent for decades. ACE is an innovative public-private partnership that is spearheaded by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and includes U.S. private industry companies, academic and research institutions in United States and Africa, and the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health. It’s great to see this multifauceted collaboration. For example, for ACE, U.S. private industry companies donated equipment and consulting services worth an estimated $1.75 million, and U.S. academic institutions, in collaboration with African academic and research institutions, provide facilities and degree granting programs. NIH provides in-kind contributions to ACE Centers that includes assistance in operational management, equipment, teaching and training, and technical support of about $1.0M over the last 4 years. The sophisticated computational capacity and software have allowed Ugandan scientists to conduct analyses which otherwise would need to be performed outside of the country.
In 2015, the first ACE opened its doors to faculty and students at the University of Sciences, Techniques, and Technologies in Bamako, Mali. After graduating several cohorts of Master’s students, the program organically grew to include a cohort for Ph.D. students as well. Building on that foundation, in 2019 the ACE program expanded to Uganda, in partnership with Makerere University and the Infectious Diseases Institute. Makerere University’s first cohort of students to use the ACE Uganda center consisted of 26 Master’s students and four Ph.D. students.
Almost a year after the grand opening in Uganda, the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world. Throughout the pandemic, scientific education and health communication continued at the Centers in earnest. With each ACE Center outfitted with a state-of-the-art telelearning center, the switch to virtual learning was able to happen with less interruption than many other institutes experienced. The Biovisualization Lab in Uganda piloted Virtual Reality-based training on proper usage of personal protective equipment in the management of patients with COVID-19. The Center’s advanced computational capacity was used to develop a COVID-19 chatbot to address gaps in health care by providing interactive answers to the public based on guidelines from the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization. On the subject of COVID, while conditions are improving globally, let’s not forget that it remains a threat, especially to those with underlying conditions that make them vulnerable. Vaccines are safe and effective, and here in Uganda, the United States has provided over 18 million doses as well as other support. I hope you are all vaccinated and I hope you encourage your friends, family, and colleagues to get the jab, too!
Both ACE Centers have been the recipient of educational grants to open the door to advanced training options, accelerate discovery, and expand support for students within their programs. Collaboration with the U.S. National Science Foundation Open Science Grid Consortium has expanded access to larger computing resources and truly allowed students to “submit locally, run globally.”
Shahid Kiyaga joined the ACE after 5 years in the pharmaceutical industry. ACE provided a platform that allowed him to change track into biomedical research. It supported him in obtaining funding from the East African network of Bioinformatics that has allowed him to succeed with ground breaking research work in the genomic epidemiology of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. In that work Shahid discovered 12 novel sequence types and numerous resistance and virulence genes of the bacteria. His progress has been both rapid and comprehensive, to the extent that he now serves as a Teaching Assistant on the bioinformatics program and has won a research fellowship from the Infectious Disease Research Collaboration (IDRC) enabling him to apply bioinformatics and data science tools to support Malaria surveillance in Uganda.
Peter Ssabakaki joined the ACE and the bioinformatics training program immediately after completing his undergraduate studies. The He thrived in the ACE training program, steadily building his credentials as a cancer genomics researcher. He won the Health Professions Education & Training Initiative (HEPI) fellowship supporting his work on machine learning based prediction of breast cancer, forming the basis of his PhD in Cancer Genomics and bioinformatics in collaboration with the Fred Hutch Cancer Institute and the Uganda Cancer Institute. As an individual who only recently completed his undergraduate degree, the ACE platform put him on his current trajectory in cancer research.
ACE Uganda and U.S.-based Duke University also won a competition funded by the Epilepsy Foundation. Groups were tasked with developing an app for adolescents with epilepsy to solve the challenge of social-cultural beliefs and disinformation around the disease in Uganda. To-date, app design has been completed and is currently in development.
The U.S. Government has made substantial investments in education and scientific infrastructure on the African continent. One of the founding principles of ACE was to build a scientific network across Africa. Today, we see that network in action as students share their research with their peers and this unique community. The United States invests in the Ugandan people and programs like this to help build vibrant, prosperous societies where every child, every woman, and every man has the opportunity to achieve their full potential and to pursue their dreams. Your collaboration and achievements speak to that future and set an example for future generations. Please join me in celebrating the dedication and achievements of these students and the outstanding faculty that have mentored them along the way. I wish you every success in your future endeavors.