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Boston Nonprofit Fuels Science In Africa

This article is more than 11 years old.
A technician shows a scientific instrument called a mass spectrometer to a visiting African scientist. (Anne Allmeling/WBUR)
A technician shows a scientific instrument called a mass spectrometer to a visiting African scientist. (Anne Allmeling/WBUR)

BOSTON - Nina Dudnik is trying to make Boston the hub city of scientific progress in Africa.

"We tend to think of Boston as a place where scientific expertise comes inward here," said the 35-year-old idealist. "I like to think about how Boston can function as a hub for sending scientific expertise outward. To build that greater global scientific community."

Dudnik's nonprofit is called Seeding Labs, and to build that greater global scientific community, the organization recently brought a dozen scientists from Ghana and Mali to learn best practices from the Boston-area's premiere scientific institutions.

"It’s awesome, just amazingly cool," said Ellis Owusu-Dabo, a science department head from a university in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi, as he watched a technician in a Cambridge laboratory demonstrate a mass spectrometer, a scientific instrument used to identify molecules.

While the nonprofit was formed to ship used equipment across the Atlantic, with funding from the drug company Novartis, Seeding Labs has created a fellowship for African scientists.

When one of Owusu-Dabo's colleagues asks how much the instrument costs, the technician says "about $350,000."

Owusu-Dabo and the other African scientists shake their heads. This lab has several of these scientific instruments, but there isn’t a single one of them in all of Ghana. Even if these scientists had the money to buy one of these machines, they wouldn’t have the argon gas needed to run it. Still, Owusu-Dabo is not intimidated.

"I’ve ceased being depressed about the gap [between African and Bostonian scientific capacity]," Owusu-Dabo said. "What I’ve told myself is to pick up from where you are. And start off with things like potential collaboration."

Owusu-Dabo researches tuberculosis. He’s hopes to send samples from his patients for this lab to analyze. If the results are interesting, perhaps he and the lab could publish together.

That where you are should no longer influence the difference you can make in the world was the inspiration for Seeding Labs 10 years ago. That's when Dudnik worked in Africa for a year for a development organization.

"And one of the things that was incredibly striking about being back in Boston was just the sheer abundance of stuff," Dudnik said. "The technician in my lab in the Ivory Coast, for example, had spent a fair portion of her time washing and drying plastic test tubes. Which of course here we get rid of without a second thought."

It wasn’t just test tubes, Dudnik remembered. It was microscopes, centrifuges, you name it. Dudnik saw her fellow colleagues slide used scientific equipment out in the hallway for the custodians to just make disappear. So instead of taking a high-paid research job, Dudnik started a nonprofit. She said the goal for Seeding Labs was to collect discarded scientific instruments and ship them to developing nations.

"You can be the most well-trained scientist in the world, but without the tools you cannot do what you’re trained to do," Dudnik said.

At first Seeding Labs collected random used equipment. Then local companies starting partnering. For example, Waltham instrument maker Thermo Fisher Scientific gives customers a credit for trading in some used equipment when they upgrade. Thermo Fisher then refurbishes those machines and gives them to Seeding Labs.

"We’re all about helping our customers to be successful," said Thermo Fisher executive Karen Kirkwood, "wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. And so we try to approach that in a lot of different ways."

Seeding Labs also tries to make a difference in different ways. While the nonprofit was formed to ship used equipment across the Atlantic, Dudnik came to the realization that it could also ship knowledge. With funding from the drug company Novartis, Seeding Labs created a fellowship for African scientists.

"I will be able to impart the knowledge I have acquired back home," said Kofi Annan, who coincidentally shares the same last name as the former U.N. secretary general.

Annan researches drugs to fight malaria. On the scientific exchange, he filled dozens of notebooks with ideas to tackle research problems when he returns.

Annan said he hopes more people "could see the benefits of what I have learned [in the Boston-area]."

The gap between science in Boston and Africa is as wide as the ocean between them, but one local nonprofit, Seeding Labs, is trying to make it smaller.

This program aired on September 19, 2011.

Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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