Edinburgh Global

Sydney Brenner Fellowship

We spoke with Dr Luicer Anne Ingasia Olubayo and Dr David Twesigomwe, recipients of the Sydney Brenner Fellowship.

The Sydney Brenner Fellowship is a collaborative project with Wits University. It aims to contribute to advancing biomedical research on the African continent by supporting the careers of young post-doc researchers of African nationality working on health-related research.

The fellows are hosted at the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience (SBIMB), Wits University in Johannesburg, and supervised by scientists from the SBIMB and the University of Edinburgh. They will receive funding to support their research on a full-time basis for four years.

The researchers made the first of several planned trips to Edinburgh in October, to share knowledge, gather information on postdoctoral research and develop potential collaborations related to understanding how human genetic variation impacts disease and treatment across populations.

 Dr. Luicer Anne Ingasia Olubayo and Dr David Twesigomwe
Dr. Luicer Anne Ingasia Olubayo and Dr David Twesigomwe

Edinburgh Global (EG): How would you summarise the SBIMB fellowship opportunity, and what are you hoping to achieve?

Dr. Luicer Anne Ingasia Olubayo:

"The fellowship is one of a kind because it offers exposure, networking, collaboration, opportunity for training, and mentorship from experts in the field. My interests are:

  • Understanding human genome variations
  • What influence the environment has on the genome
  • Host-pathogen interactions
  • Host genetic factors and the microbiome

"The enigma is what makes some individuals more susceptible to diseases and others not.

"My career objective is to gain knowledge on genetics, genomics, and computational science of diseases to improve human health. I believe big data analyses, and phylogenetic and bioinformatics analyses have an important role to play in managing various disease conditions and drafting policies to combat and eliminate infections. The fellowship offers the opportunity and the platform to achieve my dream through networking, collaborations and training."

Dr David Twesigomwe:

"The fellowship offers us the opportunity to take lead on projects at the SBIMB (in collaboration with Africa-based scientists), and benefit from training, networking, and collaboration opportunities abroad, particularly at the University of Edinburgh.

"The aspects that make the fellowship ideal for a young scientist are:

  • The four-year duration, which offers some stability and confidence regarding the scope of the research questions we can address
  • Enhanced visibility through leading multiple publications and grant applications
  • Invaluable mentorship from the SBCT trustees

"By the end of the fellowship, I hope to be ready to lead a research group (preferably in the area of pharmacogenomics).

EG: Why is it important to be working on African research as African researchers?

Dr David Twesigomwe:

"African populations are considerably underrepresented in genomics research. This has negative implications for health in Africa as we don’t yet understand the relationship between the extensive genetic diversity on the continent, various disease conditions, and treatment response. I believe that young African scientists have a great responsibility in addressing this disparity.

"We cannot afford to rely on solutions from abroad, especially given that we have a good foundation in bioinformatics, genetics, and various omics. We can confidently train other young African scientists to increase the pool of skills necessary to expand our research efforts in Africa. As a potential future principal investigator, I am aware of the massive role I would need to take on to facilitate meaningful, healthy, and ethical collaborations with scientists that have research questions requiring the use of data from African participants."

Dr. Luicer Anne Ingasia Olubayo:

"African genomes contain more genetic variation than those from any other continent, yet only a fraction of the genetic diversity among African individuals has been surveyed. Studies that scan genome data for links to diseases have been done, but the DNA used was mostly from Caucasian samples, with Africa’s contribution being 2%. Due to the diversity and uniqueness of African population, data from studies conducted in other populations should not be extrapolated to the African population. Genomic equity from diverse populations is essential to ensure that all global populations can benefit from the advances in health that precision medicine offers.

"Until recently, genetic research in Africa was scarce. Most was done by researchers based outside of the continent, but advances in training and collaborations mean African researchers (with a greater awareness of the uniqueness of the population) have been better equipped and to conduct research on continental Africa in the future."

EG: How is the link with University of Edinburgh and the Human Genetics Unit (HGU) helping you in your fellowship?

Dr. Luicer Anne Ingasia Olubayo:

"The partnership between the University of Edinburgh and University of Witwatersrand will provide opportunities to train and mentor young and early career fellows such as myself. It is a rare opportunity for us to choose our project of interest and identify collaborators, co-hosting supervisors, and mentors from the University of Edinburgh.

"The collaboration will empower me to conduct research and data analyses on the African population and concentrate on Africa related problems. This will strengthen the objective of African researchers conducting research focused on Africa and nurture my career as an upcoming woman in science.

Dr David Twesigomwe:

The partnership comes with two main advantages:

  1. It presents upskilling opportunities and expands the scope of my pharmacogenomics research through potential collaborations with HGU researchers
  2. The link with the University of Edinburgh has opened up networking opportunities that will be vital to my career growth in the future.

EG: Was there anything that stood out on your recent visit to Edinburgh that was particularly enlightening or helpful for the next four years of the fellowship?

Dr David Twesigomwe:

"It’s difficult to pick just one thing. I think having the exposure to the organisation and research at the Institute for Genetics and Cancer and the HGU was important in helping me think about my goals and potential collaborations during this fellowship. I found the work being done by groups investigating emerging techniques for protein variant interpretation particularly interesting as these could be applied to the largely uncharacterised African-ancestry variation."

Dr. Luicer Anne Ingasia Olubayo:

"I was able to network with researchers working on a diverse array of projects. This first visit was an opportunity to identify the co-hosting supervisors, collaborators, and opportunities for training and mentorship that will be paramount in our projects.

"What stood out during the visit is the enthusiasm from all the researchers and their eagerness to be part of the success of both the partnership and my experience as a fellow. I am confident that the collaboration between the two institutions will be fruitful."

It was such a pleasure hosting David and Luicer for their visit to Edinburgh. They quickly became part of the community here, threw themselves into talking to as many people as possible, and showed a real hunger to capitalise on the opportunities of collaboration between South African and Edinburgh. I really look forward to their return visits and to see how their research projects develop

Professor Wendy BickmoreDirector - MRC Human Genetics Unit


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