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Enhancing Global Access: interview with CZI grantee Caron Jacobs

Posted by , on 24 January 2024


Caron Jacobs is one of the leaders of the Africa Bioimaging Consortium, whose aim is to unite a pan-African network of imaging and life scientists. The project focuses on enabling access to technology in various ways, including infrastructure, expertise, networking, and the ‘Teach Africa Microscopy’ program, tailored for the needs of African scientists.      

With your project, you are uniting the continent, and because of its scale, you face different languages, needs, resources, bureaucracies, etc. How have you achieved ABIC? What has your experience been?

It has been challenging, but also very encouraging. With ABIC, our focus has been on the community and getting people interested before we start looking too much into access programs or other things. And we’ve had the privilege of seeing the community grow rapidly in the past 2 years. Some challenges include bureaucracies, wariness regarding time commitments, and confusion regarding what it is that we’re trying to do. We often have to explain that we are community-based. We are not a funding organization, but rather, a network of people who want to work together.

Most of our engagement is from students, postdocs and early career researchers. They have more time, they are looking for opportunities, and are very enthusiastic. We have not yet had a lot of engagement from PIs or upper management. When resources are so thin on the ground, everyone is protective of their time and money. My hope is that as more people see what we do, and what can be achieved, this will get people’s attention. Recently the president of the African Academy of Sciences agreed to attend one of our ABIC meetings to find out what we do, and leverage programs to imrpove access. This is encouraging and that’s the sort of level of validation and legitimization that I think will make a difference. Another challenge is that ‘core facility’ is a foreign concept for research in much of Africa. And it’s important to understand that realistically, resources are not even close to being evenly distributed in the continent. We are open to everyone and we have engagment from researchers in 22 countries across the continent. It’s great to get people to talk about access to equipment. Realistically, there are a few nodes in the continent where there’s the equipment, expertise, and resources to invest in infrastructure, and we are looking for ways to intentionally target those places for engagement. 

Critically, none of what we are doing is possible without the community members driving the work. The support of the international community has also been very encouraging, and we’re proud to have recently joined with Global BioImaging too!

Is brain drain an important challenge for imaging scientists in the continent? 

Yes. People leave for a variety of different reasons, including looking for better opportunities. One thing I’d love to see is that as a result of the work by ABIC, AMI, and others, there are more opportunities for researchers to stay in Africa if they want to. That has to be a consequence of growth not only in local academia but also in related industry, and opening the possibility to transition into industry if that’s what people wish to do. But the fact that there are lots of people outisde the continent who want to get involved is something we have identified as an opportunity. We have not yet identified how best to leverage this, but it’s a factor with huge potential. Our main criteria is to engage people with an interest in doing capacity-building in Africa, and for instance, we have initiated discussions with PairUP. 

How did you first hear about the CZI program?

I became aware of CZI towards the end of my PhD in 2018. I wasn’t based in South Africa at the time, but in the UK. There was a general awareness about a funder that seemed to be interested in imaging. Then, in my first postdoc I worked on a project linked to the Human Cell Atlas, which CZI was also an early funder for. When the first call came out it was only available to US scientists. But this created a build-up of both expectation and awareness. When the call for the second round of imaging scientist applications came out, and it was clear that it was open to scientists outside the US, several people from various networks forwarded it to me. It’s one of the reasons why networks and community are so important. I was aware of this opportunity because of my network and people willing to share opportunities with me. This is a key motivator for what we are trying to do with the African Bioimaging Consortium.  

How difficult was it to start AMI from big boxes arriving with microscopes to a completely empty lab space?

AMI (Africa Microscopy Initiative) is a really exciting program which partners very closley with ABIC.The open access imaging centre, housed here at University of Cape Town, is the flagship project for AMI to build open access imaging in Africa. It has been interesting and quite fun to start from scratch. We had key champions who convinced us that this can work, and we have just pushed the project forward. Starting up the lab was linked to fortunate timing – we had lots of input from Teng-Leong Chew at AIC Janelia, and the proposal came forward as our institute was building new expansion space and floor space that they hadn’t yet allocated. We got in at the right time and said ‘we have an idea of what we can use that space for, here is a white paper and a plan with a budget’. Myself and Mike had the chance to plan the lab from scratch- including ordering and designing furniture, ventilation systems, etc. It’s also not every day that you receive 5 microscopes in one go. You have to get them all set up and train people at the same time, and a few of them have some teething issues we need to address. I imagine that if you receive one microscope at a time, you get it up and running a lot quicker than if you have 5, but we are getting there. 

One of the things CZI has done is strengthening microscopy networks. How do they foster networking? 

It’s great being a CZI grantee – I feel you are almost instantly connected to more people. I don’t know if other funders achieve this, or do this so successfully. But it’s the only program where I’ve seen they have kickoff meetings to try and get grantees from the same programs to become aware of each other, and talking to each other. There is always this underlying idea of how we can work together and collaborate. And the imaging community is a great community. It’s always looking for ways to work together and support each other. I feel CZI has done a lot with their funding and the way they work wth the grantees, bringing them together in meetings – there is a definite focus on community building. Networks like LABI and ABIC have grown a lot because of the CZI funding, there are a lot of new and exciting initiatives and the ball is now with us to find the next source of funding, and to ensure sustainability, but it’s not straightforward. And a lot has been seeded and is growing, but we will see its visible benefits 5 years down the line, especially in under-resourced settings.

How important has the CZI funding been for you?

Almost none of the project would have been possible without this funding. I recently gave a talk to a PhD student cohort in our department, and I made the reflection that my path completely changed when I applied for the imaging scientist fellowship program. This is despite the fact that a few people ‘cautioned’ me that applying for a position at a core facility and more focused in capacity development, would shrink my career. I have mapped up the people I’m connected to, with active collaborations or exploring ways to work together, and it’s a huge network. From a personal and career perspective, the imaging scientist fellowship has been life-changing. From a larger project perspective, it’s extremely impactful- no one else was going to come and fund our various initiatives at the point that they needed funding, the way CZI has. 

How do you define democratizing microscopy? What would you like to see in 10 or 20 years, and what are the future directions of your projects? 

These are big questions. Something I have strong opinions about is that people tend to use the term ‘democratizing access’ or ‘democratizing technology’ as making what is typically very expensive more affordable, and I think there is value to this of course. But I think exposure and education is often overlooked. Quality education is key to democratizing access, for technology to be assimilated and used to the fullest potential. But this is something that requires lots of investment – not just money, but people hours investment too. This is one of the reasons we started ABIC- it’s not useful to host a workshop about X or Y technique in microscopy, and people go home realizing ‘I learned a lot about confocal/super-resolution/light sheet microscopy, and back home in my lab I have access to none of those tools’. Training must include the opportunity to apply what is learned, and not just with a perfect sample. People work with challenging samples, often not amenable to certain types of labeling for example. Biocontainment is another big issue. In the long term I would love to be involved in addressing those challenges. I think it’s one of the reasons why I’ve maintained an academic appointment versus going purely into a core facilty role. I want to be able to write grants which means I can work on these types of projects, whereas in a purely supportive position I wouldn’t have that flexibility. Also, I would love to see the community operate in a much more decentralized and self-driven way than it currently is. Long term, I want to see people having easier access to this technology and be able to apply it well in more than 5 places in the continent. That people have access anywhere in Africa and anywhere else in the world. 

Getting funding going forward, if and when the CZI money starts drying up, how do you sustain it?

This question keeps me up at night, both in terms of my salary and all our projects. Even locally, in Cape Town, core faciltiies are not well supported in terms of institution means, so I’m not sure I would necessarily get funding if I did want to transition fully into that role. In terms of the project, a mid-term option is to transition ABIC into a non-for-profit organization that can receive donations. Even that requires money and time, and it’s definitely not trivial. For things like our open access lab and AMI, we might have to modulate the way we operate, but there will be ways to find funding going forward for some of that. The community is harder to get money for, if CZI ceased to support work in that space, and this would be a huge pity because technology without people turns into expensive paperweights. We need people as much as the technology.  

I imagine sustainability is huge for CZI too. Several grantees have shared their worries about ensuring sustained funding, but also how the CZI grant has also become a stamp of approval or quality which other funders see too. How do you feel this impacts your vision?

I can understand it’s a tricky thing for CZI. I have had the same experience, that the CZI grant was definitely an enabling factor for me to get other grants. Sharing with other colleagues, there is indeed a concern about what happens next. There has been a massive investment by CZI and given that it’s almost experimental – the way they have invested in people and technology, the impression we have is that other funding bodies are watching to see how it goes. I think there is a concern that if CZI removes support too soon or too abruptly without visibly having transition processes in place, anyone watching from the outside that sees a main funder rapidly pull support will think something went wrong. That’s why I think dissemination of the work CZI has supported – for example, what you are doing in this project- is really impactful. I hope CZI is aware of the impact they have had. 

Check out our introductory post, with links to the other interviews here

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