At Immuno-Zambia, Connections Abound

Date: March 2, 2023 By: Emily Makowski and Gail Sanders

How can we increase the visibility of young African scientists, make research less siloed, and encourage the exchange of ideas? That’s what Ragon investigator Zaza Ndhlovu, PhD, set out to solve by organizing Immuno-Zambia 2022.

The Ragon Institute was founded on the principle of collaboration. In that spirit, Ndhlovu convened rising stars in African immunology in Lusaka, Zambia, for the first-ever Immuno-Zambia course in December 2022. The goal of the five-day conference was to support up-and-coming graduate students and postdocs from Africa, showcasing their immunology research as scientists living and working in Africa and providing them with the opportunity to receive professional guidance from world-class experts. The course also gave them the chance to network with these experts as well as their peers. Immuno-Zambia hosted 72 attendees in all, including 52 students from 14 African countries across the continent as well as from Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Mexico.

Ndhlovu is an assistant professor at the Ragon Institute and an associate professor at the African Health Research Institute, the Ragon’s partner organization in South Africa. He helped found the Immunological Society of Zambia (ISZ), which is affiliated with similar immunological societies across Africa and the world. Hailing from Zambia himself, Ndhlovu says that immunological research in Africa is often siloed and the visibility of scientists’ work is low. From the beginning, he wanted to be able to offer scholarships to ensure that travel and registration costs were not a barrier to anyone who was selected to participate in the conference. Most of the money raised for the course was allocated to such scholarships.

The conference focused on HIV, TB, malaria, and COVID-19, the “Big Four” of infectious diseases in Africa. Attendees participated in talks, roundtable discussions, short presentations, poster sessions, and a grant-writing exercise. Ndhlovu invited faculty whom he knew would be inspirational to students to lead group sessions.

One such faculty member is Azza Idris, MD, PhD, the head of the Malaria Unit at the Vaccine Research Center at the NIH and visiting researcher at the Ragon Institute, who specializes in the study of malaria. Born in Sudan, Idris witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of childhood diseases on families. These experiences sparked her interest in medicine, immunology, health equity, and global health. She has been eager to give back to Africa in the professional realm.

Idris was assigned to a group of six trainees and another faculty colleague with a focus on writing effective grants for their research, an important tool for a scientist to master. The students worked closely with Idris and her faculty colleague for four days and made presentations on day five, with Idris giving valuable feedback to the researchers. At the end of the event, Idris received several requests from students for continued connections and future collaborations.

Idris described the meeting as “both inspiring and motivating,” as she saw the mission of elevating scientific exchange across continents come to life. “The caliber and curiosity of the students was exceptional, and I felt honored to participate in this inaugural event.”

Thumbi Ndung’u, PhD, a Kenyan-born HIV/AIDS researcher, also participated in the conference as a faculty mentor and presented his work on the current HIV vaccine design landscape. Ndung’u is an associate member of the Ragon Institute, the director for basic and translational science at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) in South Africa, scientific director of the HIV Pathogenesis Program of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and director of SANTHE, a sub-Saharan network of African-led research in HIV and tuberculosis.

Ndung’u was delighted with the opportunities that the course offered for innovation through collaboration. “This course showcased the excellent science being performed in Africa. It opens up opportunities for collaboration, networking, and African-led innovation to solve some of Africa’s most intractable health challenges,” remarked Ndung’u.

The attendance of the sessions was excellent, as was the quality of the science that was presented, says Zaza Ndhlovu. He is planning to organize another course for 2023, perhaps with Immunological Societies of other African countries. The International Union of Immunological Societies (IUIS), the governing body of the Immunological Society country chapters, sponsored the 2022 event, along with The Federation of African Immunological Societies (FAIS), the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), and SANTHE.

Immuno-Zambia inspired numerous connections between researchers and trainees. Now, Ndhlovu wants to ensure that these connections persist and help to accelerate researchers’ careers. In the long term, he hopes to establish an annual or biannual gathering and offer resources for students to attend these meetings so that they can gain the exposure they need. Ndhlovu also wants to create networks among African labs so that those with resources and equipment can host researchers who might not otherwise have access–an investment in collaboration and in the future of African immunology.

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