One beaker and microscope at a time, the Boston-based nonprofit Seeding Labs is helping universities in developing countries to bolster their scientific research.
Last week, I spoke with Nina Dudnik, the organization’s founder and CEO, about how reclaimed lab equipment is injecting new life into science worldwide. Here are excerpts of our conversation:
What’s the mission of Seeding Labs?
The ultimate goal of Seeding Labs is to help universities in the developing world become world-class research institutions. We’re progressively figuring out what that will take. It’s not an easy thing to accomplish. It’s taken universities here decades, if not centuries, to do it. We want to help universities in the developing world catch up and integrate into the greater global science community more fully.
Do you focus primarily on getting lab equipment to scientists in developing countries?
[The lack of equipment] is a very concrete need. It’s very compelling. But it’s not the only thing that’s missing from scientists’ lives in the developing world. We also are focusing on training, building the global science network. Scientists have often been professionally isolated due to geographic isolation. That should no longer be a factor. The Internet is getting better everywhere. But you still tend to meet your colleagues through conferences. A lot of scientists in other parts of the world cannot necessarily afford to attend. We have to come up with other ways using technology and in-person activities to help scientists connect with colleagues they might not otherwise meet, but who have valuable ideas to share and interesting projects to collaborate on.
How have you been able to bridge those gaps and connect scientists?
We started [a program] with Novartis, a pharmaceutical company here in Cambridge. We brought scientists from Africa, who are reasonably early in their careers as professors, to Boston for the entire summer. They spend a large portion of their time in the lab with scientists from Novartis. They were all assigned a particular mentor from one of those labs. Those relationships have proven to be really rich for everyone involved. The scientists from Africa got hands-on training in some of the most recent techniques and the most advanced technologies. We also worked with them outside the lab with other scientists from academia on other skills: how to write an award-winning grant, how to publicize your work, how to talk about it in a public setting, how to mentor your students better. They formed a lot of relationships here that have lasted.
On the student side, connecting people of that generation is a really important part of what Seeding Labs does. They will be the leaders in academia and industry within the next few years. They’re still very eager to build their network. We have student volunteer groups. Some of them get involved with testing and sorting equipment to send overseas. They’re also coming up with lots of new ways to stay in touch with their counterparts overseas online, using Skype and video-conferencing. There are corresponding student groups in the universities that we work with abroad. Everybody wants to meet each other.
How do you get lab equipment to scientists in developing countries?
It’s always the first and most obvious thing that is lacking in a lot of these universities and labs. You find a lot of students who have had to truncate their thesis research because they were unable to find the right piece of equipment. We work mostly with companies here and also universities. They have the opposite problem. In a lot of cases, they make cutting-edge technology all the time. Things that are not necessarily incredibly out of date are already out of date for their labs. They have all of this fantastically useful equipment and there’s not a lot to do with it. It’s a black hole in a lot of cases.
We make sure that it goes some place where it will have a second life. All the equipment we send overseas is by an application process. We go through it very rigorously to make sure we’re giving scientists what they need for the research they’re doing. We custom design every single shipment we do. It’s not a standard set of equipment. One-size-fits-all doesn’t work for research. Depending on what you’re working on, you need very specific stuff. We’re dealing with that to the best of our ability.
Which countries have received equipment from Seeding Labs?
Right now we’re primarily working in Kenya and Ghana. We’re working with most of the public universities in Kenya. In January, I was in Ghana setting up partnerships with the universities there to bring their scientists over to Boston for the summer. In the past, we’ve sent equipment to 16 countries total. In the next two months, we’re revising the process by which we run that part of the program. The ideal is to work with a university in the long-term on all of these issues: training, student mentoring, mentoring, equipment. We want to be able to meet a lot of different needs on all of those different levels.
Why focus on science equipment when some of these countries might not have clean water or enough food?
I’m of the mindset that all these things can and should be tackled simultaneously. It really should not be a question of: Do we feed people or do we help people develop better crops? We have the resources globally to do these things at the same time. The best way to ensure people have clean water, in my opinion, is to train water sanitation engineers, not to export bottled water. The best way to ensure development in these areas is to have a homegrown, home-trained labor force in science and engineering and mathematics to be able to develop these solutions long-term.
You started Seeding Labs when you were a Ph.D. candidate. What prompted you to do this?
I decided at 13 that I was going to become a geneticist. What turned me on to science and genetics was agricultural genetics. After undergraduate, I worked abroad for a few years doing that. I was in Italy for a couple of years and West Africa for a year. In West Africa, I was working at a rice institute. From there, I directly came back to the U.S. for graduate school.
The lab where I worked in West Africa and the labs I was working in as a graduate student couldn’t possibly have been a more stark contrast. It was a scientific culture shock. In the back of my head, I was looking for something to do concretely as a result of that. A couple of friends in graduate school with me had gone through a similar revelation. We came up with all kinds of ideas. A machine shop in the basement would gather equipment to repair it and a lot of times people wouldn’t come back to claim it. You see it all the time. You walk the halls late at night and you see things people leave out. Once you follow the trail of where that goes, you realize there’s not a very good solution for what to do with it. For us, that was the ah-ha moment.
Photo: Nina Dudnik