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As president of the International Union of Immunological Societies, Faith Osier oversees the FAIS Legacy Project that aims to train 1000 African immunologists over 10 years. Increased capacity and a strong African immunological community will be better prepared to deal with persistent problems and new threats.

One of the projects that I am involved in is in my capacity as the incoming president of the International Union of Immunological Societies, this is all immunology societies worldwide. We’ve got 60,000 members. One of the projects that I want to oversee is a project that supports the training of immunologists from Africa and can be extended to other low- and middle-income countries. This project is important to me because Africa has a huge burden of disease and yet it’s got very few scientists who can understand the biology of the pathogen and come up with interventions like vaccines and new medicines. But, within the Society, this presents a solution: we’ve got 60,000 members all over the world, with laboratories, who are doing themselves excellent science. The project aims to use this massive faculty to support the training of scientists from Africa. This is called the FAIS Legacy Project: we aim to train 1000 African PhD level scientists over 10 years in immunology, in labs all around the world.

With this project, we are aiming to train scientists from each and every country in Africa. There are 54 countries right now listed in Africa and we want to train scientists from each one of those countries. In a way, it’s planting a seed, because when some of those scientists mature, they are going to grow like trees with lots of branches supporting additional scientists. We want to make the immunology community in Africa strong, because I think that this is a sustainable way to deal with persistent problems, to deal with new threats like Ebola coming in, where the African scientists that will sequence and figure out what the strain is, figure out how they can block transmission, figure out all these sort of interventions that are needed. And I am really convinced that the way for the future is to train the people that are affected by the disease. It’s like teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish, and that’s the principle.   

To answer the question what Africans can do for themselves, I think we are already doing a lot. I think there are a lot of capacity building initiatives. In Africa, there are new centres of excellence where we try to concentrate researchers in one place, so that you’ve got the critical mass of people spurring each other along with the science. And as individuals, we are doing whatever we can, we’re running courses, we’re taking on new students, we are trying to be aware of each other and support one other. Because, in the end, Africa is waiting for us. We are the scientists, we need to come up with ideas, that is our role to play. I think there is already a lot going on, and what I like also about the present time is the internet. Before, it would have taken me forever to find out that there was a scientist in Congo or there was a scientist in Senegal, with whom I share interests. But now, with all the social media platforms and with the exchange of information over the internet, I think we are becoming much more cohesive and realising that there is actually a good number of us trained. Part of the problem is that we just don’t know each other. We don’t know where we are, and we are coming together. I am quite optimistic.

We find each other through different platforms. Sometimes it’s at conferences that you meet in America, not in Africa! But for example we have the Federation of African Immunological Societies, the African part of the big International Society. And there we have countries and national societies within that. At the moment, there are 17 out of 54 countries that have a national society, and we are working every year to increase that number. We have regional conferences and regional courses, just so that we can come together. We are also keen on connecting with the diaspora. There are lots of scientists who’ve left Africa in the name of ‘brain drain’ and they are working all over the world. We just have no way of finding them and them finding us. One of the things that the Federation of African Societies is doing is also reaching out. Because, even people that are in the diaspora can be helpful to Africa whilst they are there. They can support students, they can support with resources, all sorts of things. It’s a movement that is just growing.

There are places where there is a really good energy for research and I come from one of them, the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme, which is supported by Oxford University here. There is another centre in Ghana, the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens. There are other centres in Mali, at the Malaria Research and Training Centre. There is a number of initiatives, I have a really good colleague in the University of Cape Town. These are nodes, if you like, scattered through the continent, and my dream is that this will increase, and the role that I can play is to support the human capacity. I’m not the one who is going to build a University in every country; perhaps, maybe I will be lucky and I will be that person, but from where I am right now, what I can contribute is the human capacity, and I think human capacity is always a great place to start. Because once you have people fired up, they can practically do anything.

I feel that the world is changing. When I think that people can soon go to the moon on holiday, I just think, how is it possible with all the technology around us, we as community have not been able to protect a child from getting malaria and have their life cut short. I just feel there is enormous potential for us to make lives better. I come from a humble background; I am only here because my parents were able to protect me from disease so I went to school, I was bright, I could progress, and I could succeed. But for millions in Africa, they will never get that chance because of a mosquito that was infected bit them. And then they are slow at school, and then they are in a poverty cycle, and then they dropout and then they get pregnant, and then, you know, it’s such a waste. We can do something about it, that’s what drives me. I think we need to give children in Africa a chance.

When I think of the diaspora, I actually found a new term in Germany that I like. And that’s ‘brain circulation’. Rather than think about it as a brain drain, I found it much more fulfilling to think about it as a brain circulation. I tell scientists in Africa that you can’t do science by sitting in your village in the middle of nowhere. Science is an international affair, you need to get out and get the experience of just being everywhere where scientists are. That movement, that interaction, that spurs new ideas. I am not suggesting that scientists in the diaspora should jump on a plane and rush back to Africa. We can all contribute to Africa from wherever we are. Let’s stay connected and contribute to Africa.

This interview was recorded in September 2019

Faith Osier

Professor Faith Osier strives to understand the mechanisms of immunity against Plasmodium falciparum, and translate this knowledge into highly effective vaccines against malaria. She is passionate about capacity building and the training of African scientists to deliver the interventions needed on the continent.

Translational Medicine

From bench to bedside

Ultimately, medical research must translate into improved treatments for patients. Our researchers collaborate to develop better health care, improved quality of life, and enhanced preventative measures for all patients. Our findings in the laboratory are translated into changes in clinical practice, from bench to bedside.