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Enabling African scientists to reach a global audience

When Evariste Rutebuka joined the Tropical Biology Association (TBA) Publishing and Communications course held at Trinity last year, he had no idea it would transform his life as a PhD student at the Pan-African University.

Students on a TBA course in the mangroves

‘The beginning of my PhD beginning was so tough and full of worry. There are no special courses here to help students acquire the skills in writing and publishing so that our research reaches a worldwide audience,’ Mr Rutebuka said.

‘Since the TBA course in Cambridge in 2017, all these worries were removed and many changes were noticed not only by myself but also by my PhD classmates – I was able to open up their minds to writing and publishing in science journals and have the confidence to do so.’

Mr Rutebuka’s PhD is analysing the degradation of ecosystems due to the urbanisation of the coastal cities of Lamu and Mombasa. After returning from the TBA course last year, he published two articles – including his recommendations for conserving Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest, which is valuable habitat for chimpanzees and many species of bird. His PhD proposal was accepted for the Ecosystem Service Partnership Europe conference.

‘I am so grateful for the TBA funding and tailoring training like this,’ said Mr Rutebuka, who alongside his PhD is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Nairobi.

Dr Margaret Wangui Muriuki

Dr Margaret Wangui Muriuki, a Teaching Fellow at Karatina University, agrees. When she returned to Kenya after last year’s course, she published her research – which shows that pastoral communities’ support is vital for the future of lions, leopards and cheetahs in Amboseli National Park. Earlier this year, she defended her PhD at the Wangari Mathai Institute at Nairobi University.

‘The defence was successful, thanks to communication skills I gained from the course. I have employed the skills also in doing presentations at international conferences like Pathway in Namibia,’ Dr Muriuki said.

This week, 16 Master’s and PhD students from nine African countries will attend the second TBA Publishing and Communications course, which is run by TBA Director, Dr Rosie Trevelyan, and Course Coordinator, Dr Kevin Wallace. More than 300 students applied – demand is high, says Dr Trevelyan because training in writing and publishing in scientific journals is not routinely provided at African universities.

Students must come with a draft of their research findings and during four concentrated days they work on structuring their papers, organising their results for publication, and writing succinctly in a style suitable for scientific journals. Dr Trevelyan says:

That’s why we have a small group. We want to work intensively with students who are passionate about their research and conservation so that they leave the course with concrete skills and the confidence to publish in scientific journals.

Also teaching on the course is the Editor of the journal TREE, Dr Paul Craze, and Gilbert Adum, at Christ’s College, who is a student on the Conservation Leadership MPhil at Cambridge. Mr Adum participated in one of TBA’s signature skills training courses in the field – or rather, among the forests and savannahs of Africa.

Dr Wallace leading TBA  field training

With an office in Nairobi, the Association’s seven staff (in total) have trained hundreds of students on field courses across Africa since they started out 20 years ago.

While Dr Trevelyan and Dr Wallace clearly enjoy the unusual office environment of the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge, with its intriguing works of art and striking living plant wall, you get the sense they are more at home in mangroves or forests in Africa.

Dr Wallace has just returned from a month-long field course in Mpala in Kenya with 24 students from 19 countries – half the participants are African and the other half come from Europe, Australia and the US.

‘It’s MA level with international and national teachers, offering practical training – how to put the theory they have learned at university into practice. They also learn new ideas and cutting edge approaches to ecology and conservation that they can apply back home afterwards,’ Dr Wallace said.

These courses, which TBA runs in Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar and Uganda, are very popular – 400 applicants from African universities and NGOs for 12 places this year.

Dr Wallace leading TBA  field training

While this practical training is vital, Dr Trevelyan realised that training in publishing and writing was essential too.

‘A colleague said to me, “No, there’s no research coming out of Rwanda.” Of course I knew that there was, but the only way of finding out about Evariste’s work in Rwanda – and that of others like him – is if it’s published in scientific journals,’ said Dr Trevelyan.

Once that happens it can be a catalyst – participants on last year’s course have received invitations to conferences, students wanting to study with them, and the experience of learning together has created a community of young, motivated scientists across Africa.

Being part of a community is really important for these scientists – they share new research articles with each other and keep everyone up to date with their own work.  Importantly, they tell each other when they have published their own papers, which spurs everyone on. They keep in touch via WhatsApp – it’s a very active group.


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