Q&A with Alice Matimba, Overseas Courses Development Officer

Date: 7 February 2018

Dr Alice Matimba shares her passion for developing and delivering courses on biomedical and genomic sciences in low- and middle-income countries.

Portrait of Dr Alice MatimbaDr Alice Matimba is the Overseas Courses Development Officer for Wellcome Genome Campus Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences.
We asked her all about her job!

Q: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

I joined the Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences (ACSC) team in May 2017. Prior to this I held research and academic teaching positions in Africa, Europe and the USA focused on molecular biology, human genomics, pharmacology and clinical research.

The hype and exciting opportunities brewing in the field of genomics and its potential in health and disease are creating a significant demand for training. After returning to my home country, Zimbabwe, after my post-doctoral training in the US, I realised that there were massive gaps in capacity for genomics sciences in Zimbabwe, and that this was the case in most low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). This motivated me to become a strong advocate for capacity development in research and education in health sciences, firstly by understanding the needs to then find tailored local and regional solutions. Understanding these and other barriers faced by scientists in accessing funding and expert mentorship, I feel compelled to play a very active role in tackling some of these challenges. At the core of these solutions is training and education in advanced, new and emerging technologies such as genomics, an area of growing demand globally. By joining ACSC, I now have the opportunity to contribute to the empowerment of scientists in LMICs in Africa, Asia-Pacific, South America and the Caribbean regions.

Q: What does your job entail?

In order to continue to play a leading role in the application of genomic sciences and technology in health and disease, ACSC is increasing the number of courses it runs to ensure a wider reach both locally and internationally, as well as developing new networks and collaborations. The Overseas programme is key to this expansion. My role is to manage the Overseas portfolio, developing new courses and networks with scientists and organisations in these regions. We aim to hold up 11 courses a year targeting specific regional needs in LMICs by 2020. To achieve this, I explore potential new course topics and build teams to develop these as courses.

For the existing courses, I work closely with instructor teams to plan and conduct the courses at various regional venues. Sometimes, I travel to oversee the courses. Although we have established collaborations with institutions where we already hold courses, I am always looking for new venues which could potentially accommodate the expansion of the programme: I seek and maintain links and contacts with institutions and organisations which are important for the success of the programme. As the programme grows, I also explore more effective ways of measuring and reporting the impact of the Overseas events.

I feel that I am helped greatly by the professionalism and teamwork of the ACSC staff and instructor teams. Most importantly the Overseas programme is indebted to the local host institutions that provide facilities, technical and administrative support at little or no cost.

Q: You’ve been in post 8 months now. What aspect of your job do you enjoy the most?

Seeing a course grow from idea to reality is always exciting, and even more so if it’s your own idea! Scoping for new course topics, networks and collaborations can initially be daunting but it’s a real pleasure when there is a fruitful outcome. There are many considerations when preparing for a course overseas since every location is different, and going for the first time can feel like quite an adventure. It is also exciting to learn from new places and take ideas back which will improve our own work.

The willingness of renowned experts to teach on courses, the high demand for courses (as evidenced by the increasing numbers of applications), and knowing that the course impacts positively on participants’ lives and careers all fuel my motivation and enthusiasm towards my work.

Working with Parasite Database Resources course participants, Malawi, October 2017
Working with Parasite Database Resources course participants, Malawi, October 2017

Q: How do you decide which course topics to develop?

An important aspect for the Overseas programme is to understand the training needs in the various regions by applying a combination of methods: We conduct surveys targeting individuals in subject-specific regional societies or research groups, and the information collected is used to prioritise topics of interest by region; We also work with field-leading scientists to help identify knowledge gaps and local needs, and they provide guidance in the development of courses which are tailored to the target audience. Sometimes scientists with their own existing capacity-building programmes in LMICs may suggest topics based on the training needs of their projects or the interests of their overseas partners. In these cases we will collaborate with them if the course is made open to applicants from the whole region and allows for country diversity of participants. We are also currently setting up an expert panel that we can consult regularly on advances in technology and on opportunities of capacity development in biomedical and genomic sciences and applications in disease, health research, and public health interventions.

Having identified the gaps, we have recently introduced a viral genomics course which will take place in Vietnam this year (2018). Another new course is the antimicrobial resistance (AMR) course which will be held in Kenya. These courses will rotate across the three continental regions. We are also developing regionally-tailored courses for various human genomics topics, drug discovery and microbiome-host interactions.

Some of the course topics are already well established within the ACSC programme held at Wellcome Genome Campus. These are then tailored for the Overseas programme depending on regional collaborator links and interests, training needs and locally available infrastructure.

Q: How do you go about setting up a new course?

When a course topic has been identified, a team of perspective instructors submit a proposal to ACSC justifying the importance of the course on a regional and international level. The proposal also provides an outline of the course activities and some information about how the course will incorporate regional collaboration, sustainability, and potential impact. The proposal is reviewed by the Steering Committee to ensure that the course is of strategic fit to the programme. Once the course has been approved, we facilitate and support the team to hold meetings and to develop the training materials. We then select a suitable venue with appropriate facilities and local academic and administration support. We are privileged to work with world-renowned scientists and health professionals who are prepared to give up their valuable time to share their expertise with talented up-coming scientists in these regions.

Working with Pathogen Genomes work, Vietnam, November 2017
Working with Pathogen Genomes class work, Vietnam, November 2017

Q: What challenges do you face when developing and delivering courses in low- and middle-income countries?

One challenge comprises selecting which participants will benefit the most and are representative of a diverse number of countries in the region. The Overseas programme offers fully-funded bursaries for each participant covering travel, accommodation and subsistence expenses. For each course, 20-24 participants are invited based on a competitive selection process.

Since Overseas Courses are run over a wide geographical area and rotate to different venues, the logistics for each course must be tailored to the location and some challenges are unpredictable. Selecting venues which are easy to reach at a reasonable cost is often a challenge, particularly in Africa where airline options are few and costly. Setting dates which are compatible with both the instructor teams and the host institutes can be problematic. Identifying regional instructors who could collaborate and contribute to the development of the course is also a small challenge, which we overcome by keeping in contact with regional organisations and past course participants. Most experts are extremely busy and, whilst they would like to dedicate time to teaching, have other responsibilities.

Laboratory-based courses require extensive preparation to ensure that equipment, reagents and consumables are shipped on time. Shipping challenges can arise due to inconsistent customs requirements and processes in some countries, as well as improper storage of temperature-sensitive reagents. For computational-based courses, local IT support, up-to-date computers and good internet are critical, and pre-testing of facilities is a key part of the preparation process.

Each course may have a different or combination of challenges! In anticipation of these problems, we start planning for each course at least 1 year in advance to make sure that the dates are compatible with all concerned and the reservations can be accommodated by our host institutions.

Q: What impact do you feel the Overseas programme has in low- and middle-income countries?

The Overseas courses encompass a tailored approach to address the growing needs for biomedical sciences focused on genomic sciences and bioinformatics in LMICs where the current advanced professional training courses are nowhere near meeting this demand. As an added value to the Overseas courses we also provide Train-the-Trainer sessions and encourage participants to share their experiences and skills upon return to their home institutions. At this stage, it may not be possible to address all training needs and capacity challenges in LMICs. However, our courses are designed to help scientists to succeed despite these challenges. Having a basic exposure to some skills can encourage more innovative approaches to conducting meaningful research, even when the budgets are low and access to resources limited.

The Overseas programme provides valuable experience and opportunities to network with other scientists from similar backgrounds, as well as direct access to leaders in research who are prepared to assist participants as they apply the skills obtained on the course. Several participants have applied these skills to successfully complete their postgraduate training. The impact of the Overseas programme is now being realised as past participants have proceeded to more senior positions and are now research group leaders in their home institutions. Other past participants return to the courses as instructors when the course revisits their region.

The growing number of trainees means that there will soon be a critical mass of scientists who can conduct quality research and develop genomic sciences and bioinformatics skills in their home countries as a direct output of this Overseas programme.

Participants ready to sequence bacterial samples during the Molecular Approaches to Clinical Microbiology in Africa course, S. Africa, September 2017
Participants ready to sequence bacterial samples during the Molecular Approaches to Clinical Microbiology in Africa course, S. Africa, September 2017

Q: Where do you see the Overseas Courses programme in 5 years’ time?

In 5 years’ time the Overseas programme will be well placed to train more than 1000 participants a year. It will have widened its geographical reach and the diversity of its networks of research scientists, health professionals and partner organisations.

We are also exploring other ways of delivering the courses such as use of remote classrooms which would enable more participants to be able to access some of the courses which are in high demand.

The Overseas programme is on a major drive to partner with organisations with similar objectives to build capacity in LMICs through education and training. This will amplify the impact of these high-quality courses and will put ACSC centre stage as a key deliverer of training to an international audience.