Before PhD student Bridget Ogolowa came from Nigeria to Trinity for the Tropical Biology Association Publishing and Communications Course she admitted she didn’t see herself as a scientist.
But after the week-long course, her confidence in her research – on Nigeria’s rare rock firefinch – and in herself has changed dramatically. ‘I am a new person – I am a real scientist now and ready to face the world of science,’ she said.
Ms Ogolowa was among 12 biologists from ten African countries attending the course, which was designed to equip them with skills to get their Master’s and PhD research published in scientific journals.
The Tropical Biology Association (TBA), a seven-person charity, with offices in Cambridge’s David Attenborough Building and in Nairobi, has run field courses in Africa for two decades. More recently, Director Dr Rosie Trevelyan and Course Coordinator Dr Kevin Wallace recognised the need for training in publishing and communications. Dr Trevelyan explained:
Many young scientists in the conservation field think that only senior academics succeed in publishing their research. But that’s not true. If your research is rigorous, you can and should submit it to a scientific journal. But you need to know how to – in terms of writing style, structure, and presenting your results.
These skills aren’t typically taught at African universities. Yet it is vital young scientists publish – otherwise no-one knows about this new knowledge, which is important for conservation, leading to better decisions around habitat protection and ultimately to saving species.
Working with Trinity Fellow, Professor Paul Brakefield, the first TBA Publishing and Communications Course was held at Trinity in 2017, with funding from alumnus Roger Pilgrim’s (1975) Progress Foundation.
Students – who are typically PhD or Master’s students – had to come with a draft of their research which, with the support of TBA staff, TREE Editor Dr Paul Craze, and their peers, they then crafted into a form suitable for journal submission.
James Akossah found the course environment conducive to improving his draft paper. ‘I enjoyed sharing my work and getting feedback – that was really powerful,’ said Mr Akosshah, who is examining how wild resources from Ghana’s forests can support local communities.
Dominic Kamau has participated in TBA field courses in his native Kenya, where his work seeks to stop the decline of vultures, which play an important role in the ecosystem. ‘TBA taught me how to be a researcher and now this course has taught me how to publish,’ he said.
Amare Mezgebu teaches aquatic ecology and wetland management at Wollega University in Ethiopia, where he is researching how best to assess the water quality of streams and rivers. He found the TBA course at Trinity helpful. ‘This course sorted out my confusion about how to choose a journal and how I need to structure my paper,’ he said.
At African universities it is common for Master’s students to lecture while they pursue their research – whether they are doing a PhD or not. Dr Wallace said:
To get onto a PhD programme in most African countries is highly competitive and funding is scarce – many researchers are doing their research for the love of it.
Dr Trevelyan said the transformation in participants’ skills and confidence during the TBA course was striking. ‘Five days ago they told us they were unsure about how to write up and present their work – and now they are leaving as confident young scientists with research papers ready to publish and with new ideas to apply when they get home.’
Interleaved with the serious stuff was a tour through Trinity’s varied College grounds by Professor Brakefield and a trip to Wicken Fen – a contrast to the mangroves of Kenya and savannah of Tanzania.
‘For some it was surprising to learn that the sedges on Wicken Fen are cut down regularly – in many African parks nature is left alone to take its course,’ said Dr Trevelyan. ‘Even though we have far fewer wildlife species than Africa, the students enjoyed learning about the birds and tasting blackberries.’
If they were intrigued by the Fens, the participants were amazed by Trinity’s Potteresque-ness. ‘At breakfast in Hall they discussed which of the portraits [mostly of successive Masters] was Dumbledore, and whether they might see an owl,’ said Dr Trevelyan, only half joking.
That apart, the greatest impact of the Publishing and Communications Course might just be the networks formed across Africa. ‘Being part of a community is really important – they share new research articles and keep everyone up to date with their own work, which spurs everyone on,’ says Dr Trevelyan. ‘They keep in touch via WhatsApp – it’s a very active alumni group.’
Rio Heriniaina, who is researching Madagascar’s iconic lemurs, agreed.
It was really useful meeting so many like-minded scientists and we are already collaborating.
TBA tracks the impact of its training. Many of those on last year’s Publishing and Communications Course have published their research. Although only in its second year, Dr Trevelyan said the training was having a big impact on the careers of young African biologists, which would ultimately have knock-on effects for conservation.
Over 300 aspiring people applied for this course – we are now looking for funding to give another group of motivated and dedicated African scientists the same opportunity next year.
Trinity alumni interested in supporting the TBA Publishing and Communications Course 2019 can contact: [email protected]
For more information or to support TBA please contact: [email protected]
Photographs: © Graham CopeKoga