Monday 26 September 2016

Development of drought tolerant maize hybrids adaptable to climate change: A worthwhile and enriching experience

Dr. Abimbola  Oluwaranti, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria
Cohort 2 CIRCLE Visiting Fellow

The main focus of my CIRCLE research has been to develop drought tolerant maize varieties adaptable to the effects of climate change.  At the onset of my CIRCLE research fellowship, under the supervision of Dr. Richard Edema, the coordinator of Central and East African Regional M.Sc. (Plant Breeding and Seed Systems) program, of the Department of Agricultural Production, Makerere University, Uganda, we engaged all necessary stakeholders. This included Maize breeders from the Cereal Research Program of National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), Namulonge, Kampala, Uganda who helped with the provision and field evaluation of drought tolerant maize parental lines. Developing improved varieties of crops conventionally in the field takes a long time and the improvement is not stable due to the influence of the environment. However, the Cereal Research Program already has an existing maize breeding program under the leadership of the Dr. Godfrey Asea, a maize breeder who is also the Director of the Institute. Dr. Asea willingly directed the farm technicians to provide available drought tolerant maize inbred/parental lines to be used for phenotypic selection and molecular characterization. This meant we were able to develop drought tolerant maize hybrids which will be released to farmers to enhance food security in the face of climate change.

Field evaluation and phenotypic selection

Sixty-eight maize inbred lines were planted for evaluation in four different locations in Uganda and Kenya under different conditions; Optimum and Low-Nitrogen conditions (NaCCRI research field, Namulonge and Serere in Uganda), Drought stress (Kasese, Uganda and Kiboko, Kenya).

Measuring chlorophyll content (a drought tolerant trait) with Photosynq equipment at the NaCRRI experimental field, Namulonge, Uganda

Molecular characterization of the drought tolerant inbred lines 

In addition to evaluation in the field, genomic DNA was extracted from the sixty-eight maize inbred lines. The extracted DNA was then quantified with a NanoDrop Spectrophotometer to ensure that it was pure. Nineteen Simple Sequence Repeats (SSRs) molecular markers already linked to the gene controlling drought tolerance in previous studies were used for the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). An ARKTIK 96 well thermal cycler was used for the PCR amplification of the DNA after which the PCR reaction mixtures undergo GEL Electrophoresis to determine the location of the genes controlling drought on the chromosomes of the maize.  This laboratory work has led to the selection of drought tolerant parental lines which could have taken several seasons of field evaluations before this selection could take place.

Extracting, quantifying and amplifying genomic DNA at the Biotechnology Laboratory

Research Outputs

The identified maize inbred/parental lines will be used to develop drought tolerant maize hybrids in November/December for the agro-ecologies of Uganda. These will later be released to farmers in these areas for better grain yield under drought conditions. The research findings of the phenotypic field evaluations and molecular works have been written up for presentation at the forthcoming 11th International conference of the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment (AARSE) and National Agriculture Research Organization-Makerere (NARO-MAK) Joint Agricultural Dissemination Conferences in October and November respectively.

My experience in the biotechnology laboratory has been a worthwhile and enriching one and I have acquired new molecular laboratory skills. These skills will lead to further training on “Molecular laboratory techniques” at the University of Cambridge, UK. My appreciation goes to my Supervisor on this program and the CIRCLE management team for supporting my attendance at the training. Indeed my molecular laboratory skills and capacity on Climate Change impacts research has improved tremendously through this program, kudos to the CIRCLE fellowship!!!

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Supporting the research leaders of the future at the ACU Conference of University Leaders, 2016

In partnership with Vice-Chancellors' Ghana, The ACU Conference of University Leaders 2016 was hosted by the ACU in July this year. The main focus of the event was to bring together senior university staff to ‘debate key issues in higher education and explore shared solutions with a diverse range of international colleagues’. While the majority of attendees at the event were therefore high ranking university officials, one of the key themes under debate was how the next generation of university leaders could best be supported. I was privileged to attend the event and to jointly present, together with Professor Graham Furniss, the recently published ACU-British Academy report, ‘The next generation: ideas and experience in African researcher support’. We shared the panel with two early career researchers - Herine Otieno-Menya and Dr Olawale Olayide - also presenting their ideas and experience on support for early career researchers. Andrea Johnson from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, USA, provided the response to our presentations.

It was interesting to consider different forms of support for early career researchers and how this could be maximised to be most effective. There was also useful feedback from Ms Johnson on The Next Generation report, some of which we have already been considering for further development of the research and some of which could also be useful cross-cutting themes for much work with universities. For example, thinking of universities as systems (systems thinking is a topic currently – and rightly –hugely popular in the international development sector at the moment) and how support for early career researchers sits in that system. A topic touched upon in the report was whether it is more effective to approach change within this system from the faculty level, then involve institutional leadership, or vice versa. Perhaps this is best determined based on the type of institution, its culture and the particular entry point for the programme of support.

Again, reflecting the need to understand institutional context, the varying needs and objectives of researchers in different disciplines was highlighted (for example, in some disciplines the quantity of publications may be more important, for some it may be the use of cutting edge technology and in others ensuring the impact of research on policy may be more important). There were further questions around where support should be directed (also a topic we touched upon in researching the report). Should we be targeting just the most promising research or raising standards more broadly? What about teacher training as opposed to researcher training? The report made reference to the use of online learning, but perhaps there is the potential to also consider other modes of learning, such as split-site PhDs or PhDs by distance. Many of these points relate back to a key concept emphasised in the report: it is vital that early career researcher support is shaped by, and embedded in, the priorities of the academics (junior and senior), faculties and broader institutional and societal objectives. However, higher education institutes are, indeed, complex systems with complex needs so to do this effectively will need careful consideration and reflection.
Tawakalitu Bola Onifade, Caroline Moss, Victoria Tanimonure, Eunice Thomas and other delegates
In addition to sharing the panel with Dr Olayide, I was also very pleased to catch up with a number of early career researchers from the CIRCLE programme. Funding was very gratefully received from the National Research Foundation, South Africa, for several CIRCLE fellows to attend the event. The fellows made full use of the opportunity to join various sessions of interest and to broaden their networks. Several sent their gratitude and shared some of their highlights and reflections, some excerpts of which are captured below:

Dr Amos Apraku shared his appreciation of the measure of support for early career researchers and higher education in Africa:

It was gratifying to note governments, university leaderships and the Commonwealth as a political entity continue to place education and research at the centre of development in less-developed countries, particularly in Africa. Similarly, various funding institutions and scholarship awarding bodies are committed to this gesture (prioritisation of research and development) by continually making funding available to emerging  academics from poor countries with special focus on women. To whom much is given, much is expected; beneficiaries of various scholarships and research funding and their institutions are therefore expected to give back to society in the form of using research and technology to develop societies.
Amos Apraku, Caroline Moss and Benson Iweriebor
Dr Benson Iweriebor reflected on a number of the sessions of the conference as well as his first experience visiting Ghana and the opportunity to engage with different groups at the event:

The trip to Ghana was very eventful as it was my first time visiting that country. The conference was well organised and attended by eminent scholars from across Commonwealth nations from the Caribbean, to Asia, to Canada, Australia, Fiji, and Africa. I was privileged to meet many erudite scholars who were university administrators… I was also able to attend concurrent sessions throughout the conference: ‘Funding trends and opportunities’ and ‘Developing the new generation’ on the first day which culminated in a welcome party organised by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Legon. It was an opportunity to unwind and meet fellow attendees and we were entertained by the university’s cultural group where people danced to the rhythm of drums. Oh, I loved the way the delegates from Sri Lanka danced enthusiastically to the beating of the drums.

The second day of the conference… ended with a plenary entitled ‘Addressing historical injustice: from Rhodes to reparations’ with Profs Sir Hilary Beckles (VC, University of the West Indies) and Prof Adam Habib (VC, University of the Witwatersrand). Both talked about their experiences as university administrators on the issues of the slave trade and need for reparation following student protests to have the Rhodes statue in South Africa removed. To cap the day’s events, a gala dinner was held for delegates at the State House with The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC being the guest speaker. Delegates were treated to good music and a sumptuous dinner. It just felt like being home in Nigeria with my colleagues Dr Eunice Thomas, Apraku Amos, Bola Onifade and Victoria Tanimonure. I miss these great and amazing souls and thank CIRCLE and the NRF for giving me the possibility to meet them all.

Victoria Tanimonure shared how several sessions at the conference highlighted the importance of research uptake as part of the research process:

The concurrent session that benefitted me most was on the research uptake ‘Ensuring that research benefits society’. There are many research outputs wasting away on the shelf without transferring them to appropriate stakeholders that could benefit from them, thereby bringing university research into use. This has been my concern over the years. Sometimes I asked myself the usefulness of all this research work - are they just for our promotion and CVs? I think it is high time we did things differently in this regard. One of the speakers who shared her experience on research uptake from her university’s perspective mentioned that they have put in place in her institution an opportunity for research uptake starting from the departmental level, then to the faculty and institutional levels. I felt strongly in my heart that I can pioneer that from my department and faculty as soon as I return to my institution. To achieve this, I found the handbook by DRUSSA very helpful.

Also, the conference debate was really an interesting one and, to me, it still boiled down to the issue of research uptake: how society can benefit immensely from universities as they rise up to the task of social responsibilities. I am sure we still have a long way to go in Africa, and Nigeria in particular, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step. We will get there. 

Dr Eunice Thomas shared how she had benefited from attending various sessions at the conference:

On the first day of the Programme, after the opening session and the keynote address by Kofi Annan, I attended a concurrent session where speakers shared with us on funding trends and opportunities in the UK, Sweden and USA. This was an eye-opener to various funding bodies and how to access them… In the afternoon, speakers talked about various aspects of development for upcoming researchers and the knowledge I garnered will be of a great benefit to me in my career.

The second day of the conference witnessed many sections.  Prof Crispus Kiamba talked about the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan (CSFP) taskforce. He highlighted the current goals of CSFP, their operations and the endowment fund set up.  That same day, in the afternoon barriers and opportunities in Africa were discussed by 3 speakers.  Later, Accessibility and the various norms in selected universities were discussed.  I now have a better understanding of the operations of the Commonwealth Scholarship. I am most grateful to the NRF for sponsoring me for this conference. I must say that you have equipped me with long term tools that will contribute immensely to my success in making a change in Africa in my career. It is a great privilege you have given me to interact with contacts from various fields all over the world.  Thank you once again. 

Thursday 1 September 2016

Experience with CIRCLE so far

By Dr Oluwole Johnson Akintonde, Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Nigeria
Cohort 2 CIRCLE Visiting Fellow

Dr Akintonde spent his fellowship year at Makerere University, Ethiopia. He reflects on the CIRCLE Programme in the final weeks of his Fellowship.

To start with, my thanks go to God, the CIRCLE team, my home institution (LAUTECH, Nigeria) and host institution (Makerere, Uganda) for this rare opportunity which enables me to have a different exposure in terms of academic environment and additional knowledge of research approaches. I considered the offer as a rare one, because it came into view weeks after the final defence of my Ph.D programme. When my name was shortlisted I was so happy, but thereafter I was downcast when I read that my participation in the programme is subject to the readiness of an assigned supervisor at the host institution. “Johnson, the most favoured man”, of course thumbs-up for the CIRCLE programme when I heard that my supervisor had been assigned.

Coordinator and Supervisor relationship
We had a warm reception from the host institution especially from Dr. Bamutaze, who is the CIRCLE Coordinator here in Makerere. Always attentive and responsive when need arises. I am also under the supervision of a lively, friendly, understanding and approachable supervisor- Prof. Shuaib Lwasa. A versatile man in research approaches, especially on research in climate change issues.

Research focus and progress
I have observed that crop farmers are not novices on changes in climatic conditions and how these affect crop production. Several strategies have been introduced, adopted and used to mitigate different effects of climate change. It is on this note my research work was designed to assess the level of use of climate change adaptation strategies among arable crop farmers of Oyo and Ekiti Sates, Nigeria. So far this work is progressing as expected. I engaged the services of two Village Extension Agents (VEAs) each from the two States (part of the stakeholders) and two research assistants. The data collection exercise was smooth and convenient. It was another opportunity which enabled me to meet rural farmers in their real state and have wonderful interactions about their knowledge on climate change, how it affects arable crop production in the area and what they are doing to combat its effects. Farmers cited different climate change associated risks/hazards experienced with arable crop production, which include; rainfall fluctuation, drought, heat, diseases infestation, soil erosion, stunted crop growth, depletion of soil fertility among others. All of these have affected both the quality and quantity of arable crop yield.

Dr Akintonde with community members
The above risks/hazards accounted for the use of a number of adaptation strategies in the area. For instance, cultivation of improved seed varieties, mixed cropping, construction of ridges, application of fertilizer and compost include other strategies used against climatic risks/hazards such as depletion of soil fertility, stunted plant growth, undesirable crop yield quality and quantity. In the same vein, construction of ridges across the slope, planting of cover crops, mulching were among other strategies used against soil erosion and water loss. Again, planting of improved seed varieties (drought resistant), irrigation, altering of crop planting date strategies were also used against drought, late/early rainfall, etc. It was observed that most of the arable crop farmers used combinations of adaptation strategies and some of these strategies were on used more frequently (eg. fertilizer application, mixed cropping, mulching, etc). Constraints associated with the use of various climate change adaptation strategies in the area include capital unavailability; irregularity of extension service; inadequate information on climate variability, inadequate required production inputs (eg. land, seeds, chemicals, etc); no subsidies of planting materials; poor access to information on climate change, etc.

Conducting focus group discussions in the community
So far, I am done with the data collection and focus group discussions (FGDs), including part of the analysis, and seriously working hard on the interpretation of the research results. I am working faster so as to have some publications during this quarter with the guidance and encouragement of my supervisor. Hopefully, he’s also going to put me through for training in a particular package/analysis software, which I intended to apply to this work. It would be part of my take home innovation that can be applied to my future research work and shared with colleagues after returning from the programme.
Of course my supervisor is ever ready to receive the complete research write-up in order to make necessary corrections and inputs, with additional support from my specialist adviser so as to come up with possible publishable manuscripts. This would be my joy and of course the joy of my supervisor and CIRCLE, being part of their objectives.

Some challenges
My initial challenge was inability to access my cash from the Ugandan bank (ATM-machine), but the CIRCLE organization is so perfect that I was not the only CVF in Uganda. When this occurred to me, I stood up and contacted my colleagues and I was relieved of the mess I found myself until the situation was resolved. The second is, there are foods but Uganda’s people don’t eat pepper, and their common food includes matooke, posho, rice, sweet potato and to round it up, no solid food. All these are prepared without pepper, just with onion and tomatoes. Our coordinator tried to encourage me to eat some of these foods but I have found it a bit difficult.

Appreciation so far
My appreciations go to CIRCLE team for this programme, my supervisor for his attention, CIRCLE programme coordinator for being there and the entire staff members of the Department of Geography Geo-informatics and Climatic Sciences, Makerere University (Host institution) for their cooperation and LAUTECH (Home institution) for releasing me to participate and enjoy various packages embedded in the CIRCLE programme.

To colleagues (CVFs)
Just a quarter to go! Let’s buckle up and bring out the best out of the CIRCLE programme. Please let’s consider it as a bird at hand…