12 February 2021

Science in Trieste, but for the Least Developed Countries

Ten promising scientists from LDCs will soon visit Italy to spend a three-month training period under the joint TWAS-SISSA-Lincei Cooperation Visits Programme of sustainability science.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn,” says a famous proverb. No sentence is truer than this one, and it reflects the spirit behind the joint TWAS-SISSA and Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei programme dedicated to early-career scientists from Least Developed Countries (LDCs), nations that face severe structural impediments to sustainable development.

A new partner has joined the Cooperation Visits Programme, a South-North-South circular programme for sustainable development launched in 2020. This new partner, the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) with headquarters in Trieste, is a leader in biotechnology research and training.

"Building peace and promoting sustainable development is a crucial goal for UNESCO, especially during uncertain times like the present ones. Creating partnerships and networks across the world, disseminating and sharing the lessons we learn can inspire the youths and entire populations. The TWAS-SISSA-Lincei programme is a valuable initiative that will help building resilience through science and technology, especially in LDCs, easing their path towards a more prosperous and healthy life," said Dr Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, the Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences of UNESCO.

The programme is now beginning. In March 2021, the first two sciences from the Least Developed Countries will arrive. They will spend a training period at SISSA and ICGEB's laboratories, both part of that world-renowned Trieste System, and the Scientific and Innovation System of Friuli Venezia Giulia that includes TWAS.

They are Willy Kira from Burundi and Feleke M. Demeke from Ethiopia. They were selected with eight other colleagues by the evaluation committee among more than 60 applications for the high quality of their proposals.

"I welcome this new important partnership with institutes from the Trieste System that are undisputed leaders within the international scientific community," said TWAS Executive Director Romain Murenzi. "We are all strongly committed to strengthening science in the South, providing tools and expertise especially to scientists from LDCs. This is a mission that TWAS, in particular, has been pursuing for more than three decades. We are honoured to be part of such a close-knit consortium of scientific excellence for the benefit of the global South."

The Cooperation Visits Programme received generous financial support from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI) and the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. Ten early-career scientists from the LDCs aged 40 or less were selected based on their high-profile curricula and the quality of their proposed project, covering five fields: physics, mathematics, neuroscience, science outreach and COVID-related. Six scientists will join the SISSA's campus, and four will work at the ICGEB.

The selected scientists, four women and six men come from nine LDC countries where science and technology development could make a strong impact, bringing positive repercussions to social and economic growth: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nepal, Rwanda, Sudan and Tanzania. During the three-month stay, they will be exposed to techniques and training that will enhance their scientific capacity in the broader area of  'sustainability science'. Their projects will address various scientific topics such as olfaction, dark matter simulations, superconductivity and dark matter.

"This joint programme is both a challenge and a novelty for SISSA (Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati)," SISSA's director and a full professor of condensed matter physics Stefano Ruffo said. "It's a challenge because we train young scientists from LDCs, and help them contain the brain drain from South to North, as we promote their return home with new skills and capacity. Also, it is a novelty because it offers strong training programmes that foster LDCs's growth through networking and international partnerships that they could not build at home."

SISSA is giving the programme a further contribution making its Research Funding and International Relations Office available to help the scientists draft outstanding projects.    

"The collaboration between TWAS, SISSA, LINCEI and ICGEB is a wonderful way of ensuring that young researchers from LDCs gain access to state of the art facilities and expertise for studies related to health and agriculture. This allows them to reap concrete benefits from their time in the laboratories and subsequently take these technologies back home for further dissemination and implementation,” said Lawrence Banks, ICGEB's Director General and the head of the Tumour Virology Laboratory.

"Science has always been a common language that brings together individuals and populations. It is even more so today because we live in a global and digital society. Giving young minds the chance to evolve and confront with peers is the best contribution we may give to our future and to ourselves," said Giorgio Parisi, the president of the Italian Accademia dei Lincei, one of the most renowned Italian physicists.

One of the selected scientists is Edwiga K. Renald from Mwenge Catholic University in Moshi, Tanzania, who will investigate mathematical models for viral surveillance applied to disease control in Tanzanian pastoralist societies. She will work with data scientist Guido Sanguinetti, at SISSA.

Other scientists who will work at SISSA are Cedric Elisee Beogo, an astroparticle physicist from Burkina Faso who will develop alternative theories of gravity; Willy Bellard Kira, a physicist from Burundi who will work on superconductivity; astrophysics Gloria Raharimbolamena from Madagascar interested in exploring dark matter simulations; Nepalese mathematician Pawan Shrestha who will explore numerical simulations; and Diane Mutumwinka, a biologist from Rwanda interested in prions, infectious pathogens that cause fatal neurodegenerative diseases.

Another example is the project that Feleke M. Demeke from Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia has proposed. She will research the surveillance and diagnosis of several viruses including chikungunya, working with the ICGEB's Molecular Virology group led by Alessandro Marcello. Chikungunya virus has caused outbreaks in various parts of Africa since its first outbreak in 1952, and Ethiopia is among the impacted countries.

ICGEB will also host microbiologist Azadul K. Sarker from Bangladesh, with a project on mRNA inhibitors (mRNA is the molecule that transfers the information from DNA to the protein-making apparatus in the cells); Ethiopian biotechnologist Zerihun S. Woldeyohannes, who will inspect endophytes, organisms like fungi and bacteria that live between living plant cells and may benefit their host by preventing infections by other noxious parasites; and Sudanese neurobiologist Reem S. Khalid Hamad, who will work on olfaction.

Sustainability is at the forefront of many discussions at the international level, and the Sustainable Development Goals released by the UN in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda urge that we become fully aware of how much we are compromising the future of generations to come, noted TWAS programme coordinator Max Paoli. He then added: "There is a reason why this joint programme is focused on capacity building and younger generations. They are our future and need training and new skills to build better societies. This is why we offer high-level education programmes especially to LDCs: these countries are an important target with great future potential."


Cristina Serra


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