Sponsored: Shining a light for emerging global talent
A conversation with Alexander Kwarteng, a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar and lecturer at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology
CIFAR brings together nearly 400 researchers from all over the world who drive scientific innovations and make important contributions to society. The CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars programme benefits early-career investigators by providing mentorship, funding, career development training, and access to a global network of scientists. Alexander Kwarteng uses an interdisciplinary approach to address the challenges associated with neglected tropical diseases. Kwarteng describes how the Global Scholars programme has advanced his career and transformed his perspective.
What inspired you to work in Ghana?
I have always been fascinated by learning, research, and discovering the full potential of science in developing countries. I am from Ghana, and after I finished my PhD in Germany, I decided to spend some time in remote Ghanaian villages working in public health. It was there that I found my inspiration to work on neglected tropical diseases. While visiting one community, I came across a man whose limbs were swollen and eyes cast to the ground in shame.
He suffered from lymphatic filariasis, and as a result, experienced stigma and was banned from village life. At that moment, I decided to devote my life to finding a cure for lymphatic filariasis so I could help people like him and contribute to my country.
What is the focus of your research?
I have a lab in Ghana with a small team of researchers. We are trying to understand the pathogenesis of lymphatic filariasis in the context of the microbiome’s role. Specifically, we investigate whether microbes complicate the disease, or lead to resistance in certain people. We go to communities, recruit patients, and document disease prevalence. We also carry out laboratory analyses to look at which microbes are present and how they might contribute to pathogenesis.
How do you incorporate a social perspective into your work?
One thing that pushed me into this field of research was my interactions with people in remote communities. While science can contribute to our understanding of disease, we also need to address the stigma, inequality, and injustice that people with disease experience. Combining social aspects with a scientific approach will bring us closer to addressing the challenges associated with lymphatic filariasis.
What is unique about the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars programme?
CIFAR stands out in all respects. CIFAR is comprised of renowned, experienced scientists from diverse backgrounds. As a young researcher, being among these individuals is fantastic because you get feedback on experimental design, grant writing, career development, and mentorship. These resources are always available for Global Scholars. We also engage in workshops, attend conferences, and travel to many parts of the world. It’s all part of the programme’s commitment to our career development. They make sure that we are transformed as Global Scholars and represent CIFAR to the fullest wherever we go.
How has it enhanced your career?
One of the great benefits of the programme for me, and many other scholars, is the opportunity for collaboration. I have been introduced to the world’s most outstanding researchers. That opportunity is invaluable. Funding is also important because without it I wouldn’t have been able to do some of the research I am undertaking in rural communities in Ghana. Mentorship and career development are key as well. They have a brilliant mentoring and advising team, which is very important for me, particularly coming from a developing country. The programme offers us opportunities to develop leadership skills so that we can mentor others. This support has enabled me to recruit young scientists and become a better mentor for my lab. CIFAR has not only had a direct impact on my life, but on their lives as well.
What impact has this programme had on you?
I feel so proud to be a Global Scholar. It strengthens my passion for science and drive to make new discoveries. It affects the way I do research and puts me on a platform to be more competitive for grants, fellowships, and other opportunities. I truly believe that this programme can change a person. It changed my perspective on life and on science, right in my home in Ghana.
Any advice for other early-career scientists?
No matter where you come from or what your background is, CIFAR will have something for you, particularly when you have the potential to impact life and society. CIFAR is taking the lead by bringing global talent together and highlighting people who have the opportunity and ability to shine in their communities.
For more information please visit www.cifar.ca/global-scholars-2019
Sponsored: Expansive Networks Empower Early-Career Investigators
A conversation with ALONA FYSHE, Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Azrieli Global Scholar and assistant professor of computer science at the University of Victoria. The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) fuels scientific advances that address broad research questions and meet complex global challenges. The CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program recognizes the essential role of early-career investigators in driving research innovation and developing solutions to these challenges. The programme provides funding and training for emerging scientific leaders, and connects them with CIFAR’s interdisciplinary networks of established researchers. Alona Fyshe, CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar, describes how her experience in the programme catalyzed her career. What are your research interests and goals? I want to improve how computers understand language by studying how humans understand language. When it comes to language comprehension, there’s a huge gap between what computers can do and what people can do. Many people are interested in building better learning algorithms. I’m interested in addressing the gap from another perspective. If we study the brain and how the brain represents meaning, can we build better languageunderstanding algorithms? I use machine learning techniques to process brain images that were taken while people were reading. From these I can study how the brain represents information, and how people combine words to build higherorder meaning. What drew you to the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program? Because I straddle two areas — neuroscience and machine learning — I saw there were two programmes where I could fit: the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind, and Consciousness; and Learning in Machines and Brains. CIFAR is very open to moving between programmes, so though my main association is with the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind and Consciousness, I attend meetings with both programmes. How is the programme structured? Each of the CIFAR programmes has regular meetings, which are very interactive and discussion focussed. I had the opportunity to present at meetings for both programmes I was interested in, and both were receptive to what I’m working on. We also have yearly meetings where all 18 global scholars get together. These meetings have been really amazing because we’re all early-career and share the same experiences of trying to build a lab and figure out how to be successful academic researchers. What resources and opportunities does this programme offer? There’s an amazing set of resources available to us. The CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars funding is unallocated and less restricted than many other grants. There’s also Catalyst Funding for risky projects that may be difficult to fund otherwise, which is only available to people associated with a CIFAR programme. They have leadership training, negotiation assistance, and media training. I also had an assigned mentor, and found that mentorship came from all kinds of people in a very organic way. I had opportunities to go to China, Japan, and Paris. The amount of travelling I’ve done in the last year has been wonderful to establish connections this early in my career. I presented to a group of scientists at the Learning in Machines and Brains meeting, including one scientist who suggested that I give a talk at conference he was organizing. At that conference, I shared the stage with many leaders in neuroscience, which was amazing and allowed me to get my name out there. That is an opportunity I absolutely would not have had if I hadn’t been part of CIFAR. What makes it unique? This programme stands apart from others because of the access you have to the phenomenal networks associated with CIFAR. If you look through the fellows for any one of the CIFAR programmes, they are some of the biggest names in their fields. Having the ability to meet these people at this stage in your career is not something you would get from a standard grant or fellowship, and the opportunities available to you are different because of the conferences and workshops you get to attend. What impact has this programme had on you as an early-career researcher? Getting this amount of funding early in my career freed up time and allowed me to focus on other things, which really helped. But I think the most important aspect of the programme to me was the opportunities I had to expand my network. It’s a snowball effect. You meet one person and they open a door. You meet another person and they open another door. These small opportunities make such a big impact over time. I have already seen its impact on my career. Learn more at: https://www.cifar.ca/research/global-scholars
Analysis of Nature’s 2019 PhD survey for students in Canada
A new analysis of results from Nature’s 2019 survey of PhD students has shed new light on Canada, a country that remains a popular destination for students from around the world. The self-selected survey drew responses from 182 students in Canada, out of a total of more than 6,300 responses. Seventy-seven percent of Canadians reported being satisfied with their overall Phd experience, a marked improvement over the 70% rate of satisfaction in the rest of the world. In China, for another comparison, only 55% of students said they were are least somewhat satisfied with their PhD experience. Some students used the survey’s comment section to share their optimism and positivity. When asked to describe the state of academia in Canada, one student replied that it is “evolving into the open, collaborative environment that it should be.” Another said “I greatly enjoy the academic system and find it extremely intellectually stimulating and exciting.” But survey results and free-text comments also point to areas of unease, including worries about job prospects. When asked to name one of the biggest challenges for students in their country, 70% of Canadians chose “finding research careers in academia.” In the rest of the world, 58% of respondents shared that concern. Overall, slightly less than half of all Canadians said that academia would be their first choice for a career, compared to 56% for students elsewhere. Many Canadian students feel under-equipped and underprepared to explore the full range of job options. Forty-six percent reported being dissatisfied with career training and advice, putting them about on par with the rest of the world. One Canadian student opined that there was “not enough advice, training, networking or collaborations for [the] non-academic track.” Students often count on their supervisors for career advice. But the Nature survey found that the student/mentor relationship can be tricky for students everywhere. Overall, 69% of respondents in Canada said they were satisfied with their relationship with their supervisor, and 23% said they were dissatisfied. One respondent said that “supervisors have too much power with no consequences for abusing that power.” In one sign of uneven relationships with mentors, some students felt under-appreciated for their work. “For some reason,” one wrote, “PhD students are not seen as proper employees or as individuals of value, despite our work being essential for the research institutes that employ us.” For some, the mentor/mentee partnership took much more serious turn. Twenty-nine percent of all respondents said they had experienced bullying during their PhD training. In the rest of the world, it was 21%. When asked to specify the perpetrator, 62% of Canadians and 48% of respondents elsewhere named their supervisor. Along similar lines, 26% of Canadians and 20% of respondents from outside Canada reported being the victim of discrimination. Nearly half (46%) of Canadians who reported discrimination said it was based on gender. In the rest of the world, gender-based discrimination accounted for 38% of all cases. PhD students in Canada clearly have much to say about the opportunities, challenges and room for improvement in the country’s academic system. They just needed to be asked.
How one Canadian scientist is tapping into the knowledge of Indigenous communities
Jean Polfus, a postdoctoral fellow at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, studies the distribution and spatial organization of caribou (or reindeer; Rangifer tarandus) populations in the Sahtú region of the Northwest Territories. She explains how she collaborates with members of the Dene Indigenous community, and how their insights benefit her research. Why was it important to you to work with Indigenous communities? In 2012, the local community-run institutions responsible for resources such as fish, wildlife and forests got together and drafted a resolution asking that Dene traditional knowledge, laws, traditions and language be respected and represented in any caribou research going forward. I adapted my work in response to this community initiative and developed memoranda of understanding with the communities to dictate how that should be done — the research questions to pursue and the methods that local people considered appropriate to carry out research. I developed a way to do caribou research that respected local people and included them in all phases of the research process. Recommended articles Working Scientist podcast: Science and government, Canadian style > Why are Canada’s scientists getting political? > How did you incorporate traditional knowledge into your scientific work? My colleagues and I asked people to help us collect caribou scat, and we gave Can$25 (US$19) fuel cards for every sample they brought in. Once we had some of the genetic results from the scat, we analysed those results in collaboration with Dene people to see how traditional knowledge and language about what type of caribou lived where matched up with what the genetic data were telling us. The results from the genetic analysis and accompanying discussions showed that we could distinguish different types of caribou genetically, and that those genetic groupings matched with how Dene people use language to describe the types of caribou. This understanding can help both the community and scientists develop better conservation plans for caribou in the region. What did you learn from the Indigenous communities? Dene people have such nuanced language to describe caribou. They have words for types of caribou that we don’t identify in conventional classification and taxonomies. For example, there’s the Tęnatł'ǝa which is a type of mountain caribou with unique markings and behaviour. This word wouldn’t exist in their language if it wasn’t essential to understanding the caribou and how to hunt them effectively. Tęnatł'ǝawarrant further study because they might harbour unique genetic diversity and could play an important part in caribou population dynamics. All of that is tied to the detailed and place-based knowledge that we often disregard in Western science because we’re trying to find standardized approaches. And when we try to standardize biodiversity, we lose some of the nuance and some of the beauty. If you have a career story that you'd like to share, then please complete this form, or send your outline by email.