A phage agent of change

Scientific research is defined by the scientific method: making an observation, asking a question, formulating a hypothesis, designing and performing experiments based on the hypothesis, analyzing and reporting the results.

Courtesy of Tolulope Oduselu

Tolulope Oduselu hopes to continue her research in microbial genomics after
degree from the University of Ibadan in South West Nigeria.

Within this central idea, a clear divide – between theory and experimentation – separates well-funded research institutions in the United States, Europe and a number of Asian countries from institutions in Africa and South America. who have only a fraction, if any, of this funding. As the demand for cutting-edge research tightens its grip on funding sources, the ability of trainees at all levels to experience modern, hands-on research is limited to countries with the greatest financial support in science.

Young scholars like Tolulope Oduselu are now rising up to demand reform.

Oduselu developed his love for biology and chemistry early on. “In Nigeria, when you find a curious kid, it’s obvious that they’re headed for science,” he said.

He chose to attend the University of Ibadan in southwestern Nigeria to study biomedical laboratory science, eager to expand both his knowledge and practical abilities.

During his second year, Oduselu realized that something was missing. He noticed that his undergraduate courses were heavily theory-based, with little practical experience. “Many concepts regarding cell genetics or microbial genomics were not available for practical experimentation,” he said. “We just had to familiarize ourselves with concepts like transcription and translation model, cellular processes, etc. It was really a matter of theoretical knowledge – just having to pass exams.

This weighed on Oduselu, who believes the key to success is a solid practical course to accompany what is learned in class. “Many undergraduates are simply part of biomedical science at a theoretical level and never really understand how these concepts contribute to a broader, holistic sense of learning,” he said.

“This is one of the main limitations of biochemistry and molecular studies in Nigeria and many universities in sub-Saharan Africa.”

While African students graduate with a solid foundation of knowledge, Oduselu said, their limited practical experience is “not really in tandem with the scientific evolution of Western countries.”

A breakthrough came for him in his third year when he reached the clinical portion of his course, structured to focus on tropical medicine and pathogenic microorganisms in the region. During this time, Oduselu was introduced to a program called SEA-PHAGES, short for Science Education Alliance – Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science.

A bacteriophage, or simply phage, is a virus that exclusively targets bacteria. Researchers estimate that about 1031 types exist worldwide. Their natural antibiotic tendencies make them attractive as possible therapies to tackle the ever-growing list of multidrug-resistant bacteria.

Members of the Ibadan Bacteriophage Research Team, aka SEA-PHAGES–UI, are, from left, Oluwasegun Daramola, Tolulope Oduselu, Toba Oyebamiji, Benjamin Adediran, Comfort Omolola, Temitayo Iyede, and Roqeeb Adedeji.

Courtesy of Tolulope Oduselu

Members of the Ibadan Bacteriophage Research Team, aka SEA-PHAGES–UI, are, from left, Oluwasegun Daramola, Tolulope Oduselu, Toba Oyebamiji, Benjamin Adediran, Comfort Omolola, Temitayo Iyede, and Roqeeb Adedeji.

The SEA-PHAGES program, founded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, aims to turn the identification and characterization of this essentially limitless number of novel phages into a multinational educational enterprise, with the primary goal of improving student retention of undergraduate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In 2018, the 11th year of SEA-PHAGES, the University of Ibadan became the second institution in Africa to join the program. “It was the first time that evolutionary science and genomics were really introduced at the undergraduate level,” Oduselu explained, “so it was a very difficult start.”

He embraced the project through his growing pains and was appointed leader of the bacteriophage research team at Ibadan. “Most of my research experience in molecular studies and transcriptomic analysis came from this,” Oduselu said. “It was quite a rare opportunity for undergraduates here in Nigeria and many African universities.”

Phage research in the context of antibiotic resistance is particularly relevant to Nigeria and Africa as a whole. More than half of all deaths in the World Health Organization’s African region, which covers most of the continent, are caused by communicable diseases treated with antibiotics, according to Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.

Through his work with SEA-PHAGES, Oduselu said, he became very aware of this. “I guess I now see myself as a change agent, who found an opportunity early on to become aware of the problem and explore as much as possible.”

He hopes to continue his research in microbial genomics after graduation; however, he faces a crossroads as he weighs his options on how to get there.

“Before the bacteriophage research team in Ibadan, very little was done on bacteriophages in Nigeria,” he said. He is now looking abroad to further his education, but said he plans to return. “It always comes down to learning, getting the right research exposure and bringing it back to Nigeria and Africa.”

The limitations of research in Nigeria are deeply rooted. According to UNESCO, gross spending on research and development in Nigeria is only 0.1% of the country’s gross domestic product, or just over $800,000. This is well below the recommended 1%. In comparison, the United States accounts for 2.7% of GDP, or just under $500 million.

“If we don’t take financial responsibility for our own research, it doesn’t matter how much international funding an African researcher can get,” Oduselu said.

Prior to joining the SEA-PHAGES program, Oduselu was frustrated with the lack of hands-on lab experience in his undergraduate courses.

Courtesy of Tolulope Oduselu

Before joining the SEA-PHAGES program, Oduselu was frustrated by the lack
of hands-on laboratory experience in his undergraduate courses.

This lack of internal funding is one of the main reasons why undergraduate students often lack practical hands-on training in the biomedical sciences, he explained. And it does not stop there. “Many postgraduate students have to pay for their own research.”

African researchers are showing ingenuity, collaboration and perseverance to excel despite a relative lack of resources and investment. In Ibadan, Oduselu’s mentors include George Ademowo, who works on malaria epidemiology and coordinated Nigeria’s malaria vaccine introduction framework; Olubusuyi Moses Adewumi and Adeleye Solomon Bakarey, virologists researching SARS-CoV-2 in Nigeria; and Iruka Okeke, bacterial geneticist and member of the African Academy of Sciences.

The need for funding does not end with providing tools for basic research, Oduselu said; African nations must also invest to move this research into a translational industrial pipeline. He is optimistic.

“It’s not too far a destination from here,” he said, “that scientific research in many African countries is going to reach the standards of what is available in Western countries.”

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