By Anji Tang ’13 and Jonathan D’Gama ’14, thurj Staff
In 1990, the World Health Organization reported that only 10% of funding for global health research was devoted to diseases plaguing 90% of the world’s population. Scientific endeavors at the heart of finding efficient cures for these diseases are often hidden behind the scenes in experimental laboratories around the world. Although in the past, scientific and medical discoveries have mostly been led by developed countries like the United States, developing countries stand poised to make many major breakthroughs. However, many countries lack the monetary means to procure equipment and more knowledge of advanced scientific methods. Without the tools and the support of a skilled scientific community, a laboratory cannot be run successfully even by the most brilliant scientists.
Fortunately, there are new ways of enabling developing countries to acquire much-needed equipment and skills. Among the most recent and extremely successful global health initiatives is a seemingly obscure organization that took root in the hallways of Harvard Medical School laboratories almost ten years ago—Seeding Labs. Beginning in 2002, a group of graduate students began a series of charity projects involving distribution of laboratory equipment. They came up with the idea of reclaiming used laboratory equipment from Harvard laboratories and making it affordable to needy labs in developing countries that were hampered by limited budgets. Their first shipment was sent out to Paraguay and Guatemala in March of 2003. In 2006, Seeding Lab’s progress was accelerated by the impetus of a business plan contest, and a year later, a fellowship allowed Seeding Labs to run full-time as an official organization.One of the unique qualities of Seeding Labs is its tremendous span of international networks. Seeding Labs work with many countries, from Africa to Latin America, with the primary goal of ensuring that scientific advancement is not merely a luxury of rich nations that can afford to fund laboratories. In the last year and a half, their focus has been on Kenya and East Africa. A major driving force for this push into more distant areas has been the introduction of modern technology. With modern advancements in information tehcnology, it is much easier to contact potential overseas targets of the program and to ensure that they remain on board throughout the partnership. Moreover, Seeding Labs has also progressed far beyond its initial image as an informal cluster of students recycling used equipment. It is now a flourishing international organization that focuses on bridging the gaps in understanding between scientific communities in the United States and in other countries. For instance, a group of young rising scientists from Africa recently participated in a Novartis-sponsored curriculum development program. These younger individuals are the faculty members and faculty-hopefuls of Africa’s future academic development. All of this started with the founder and leader of Seeding Labs, Nina Dudnik.
Nina Dudnik, Founder
Despite the barrage of inquisitive Harvard undergrads bombarding her with questions, Nina Dudnik remained spritely and upbeat through the Global Health Fair held by the Office of Career Services. With a grace that put listeners at ease, Nina explained the founding history of Seeding Labs, including the challenges her colleagues have faced. “It’s not easy; you have to have a long attention span to do work like this,” she jokes. She rattled off a long string of countries in Latin America that have participated in this program: Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Because of the large range of countries, Nina emphasized the cooperative process that must be maintained throughout the running of this organization. More than just a vehicle for passing equipment from the hands of universities in affluent countries to less wealthy laboratories in developing nations, Seeding Labs necessitates working together to make things operate. Donating equipment is not a one-time-dump-your-old-beakers-and-pipettes opportunity but a continuing partnership. Of course, equipment is vital to giving less affluent labs the initial resources they need to fuel the beginning of their research. “Everybody needs a startup package,” says Nina. Moreover, she expressed the optimistic hope that that every lab they seed will, within five years, be able to renew their own resources and continuously upgrade inventories without external assistance.
Of course, seeded labs do not receive the equipment for free. They have to pay the freight and handling costs, which amount to approximately $40,000. Although this seems like a hefty sum, it is only 10 percent of the cost of purchasing new equipment and 20 percent of the cost of purchasing used equipment regularly. And there is a cutoff for the age of the laboratory. Seeding Labs can only oversee its “children laboratories” until they become self-sufficient, or until the economic scenario of their native countries improves.
Seeding Labs was started by students, and thus, the campus aspect of the organization has always been a matter of importance to Nina and the mangers of Seeding Labs. Nina’s presence at the OCS Global Health Fair certainly demonstrates her hope of reaching out to students and potential contributors to this growing organization.
Seeding Labs Club at Harvard College
Since its founding at Harvard, Seeding Labs has stayed true to its roots of attracting enthusiastic student leaders. Currently, Erin Washington ‘11 and Tomi Lanre-Amos ‘12 are the student co-directors who lead Harvard’s undergraduate club. Both Erin and Tomi find that they get a positive reception from professors who often have much to get rid of—if it works, Seeding Labs collects it! Anything? “Yes! Pipette tips, centrifuges, PCR machines, and heating blocks. Donations come in different forms, amounts, and ways,” says Tomi. As a premier research institute, Harvard generates a significant amount of equipment turnover available to seed foreign labs. Often, ‘spring-cleaning’ in labs results in a bonanza of equipment, and some researchers have become regular donors. When the Sherman Fairchild Building closed down for renovations, Seeding Labs was a major beneficiary of discarded equipment. Even “basic lab equipment is a really important resource in other countries,” noted Tomi as she and Erin recalled Nina Dudnik’s story about washing and re-using simple pipette tips at a foreign lab—a practice avoided in most US labs for fear of cross contamination.
Erin is determined to make sure that “the first thing that comes to mind when you have old, unneeded equipment is Seeding Labs.” Publicity is their primary focus; they poster frequently and refuse to install collection bins because, as Erin puts it, “it was much better to do pickups in person and build relationships.”
Benefitting Researchers Around the World
Dr. Sebastian Brauchi of the Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia, Chile is one of many beneficiaries of Seeding Labs’s aid. Unceasingly optimistic, he quotes Forrest Gump in his description of his career and life path: “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” One of those chocolates was undoubtedly coming across Seeding Labs. Seeding Labs enabled Dr. Brauchi to obtain a “starting package” before formal grants could be acquired. Blessed with “8 square-meters worth” of well-maintained equipment, Dr. Brauchi could further his research in molecular biology and protein biochemistry. Today, Dr. Brauchi’s laboratory is a capable microscopy center possessing the country’s first TIRF and two-photon microscopes. In the future, Brauchi’s lab hopes to pursue many ambitious research goals, such as curing HIV/AIDS.
Collaboration—Seeding Labs Fellows
Last summer, Seeding Labs teamed up with the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research and offered three researchers from Africa summer fellowships in Cambridge. Dr. Evans Changamu, a researcher at Kenyatta University, received his Ph.D in chemistry from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He heard about the opportunity from Dr. Martin Mwangi, a graduate of Kenyatta University who is now conducting postdoctoral research at Harvard and is also on the Board of Directors for Seeding Labs. While in Cambridge, he worked with Dr. Lewis Whitehead at the Novartis Computational Drug Discovery section, learning “how computational chemistry is involved in drug discovery and development.” Overall, Changamu feels that “it was a very enriching experience being in Boston and Novartis in particular,” as he “knew a little bit about [computational chemistry] before.” This opportunity to experience the application of computational chemistry, Changamu says, “will have the greatest effect in my future research.” He plans to start a computational chemistry lab, and the equipment from Seeding Labs “is expected to boost research” at the university. Dr. Changamu embodies what the organization hopes to seed—researchers who return from these fellowships ready to share their knowledge and develop their research.
Working Side-by-Side—Seeding Labs Ambassadors
In addition to providing fellowships for researchers from Africa to work in labs in Cambridge, three Seeding Labs Ambassadors, sponsored by the Genetics Department at Harvard Medical School, were also able to travel to Kenya over the summer. Amanda Nottke, a Ph.D student in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, spent part of her last summer at Kenyatta University (KU) as one of the first Seeding Labs ambassadors. During the two-week visit the three researchers conducted seminars for science-oriented graduate and postgraduate students about “presentation skills, curriculum development, biostatistics, grant writing, career development, and software.”They also had the chance to “meet with department chairs and deans to talk about the future of research at KU.” Nottke visited one of the master’s students studying genetic diversity in crops who “was actually doing her masters project using some of the gel electrophoresis equipment and pipettors that arrived” on the recent shipment. This was one of Nottke’s favorite moments of the entire trip. She and her fellow ambassadors also look forward to maintaining their ties with the students they met at the university. “One thing I learned, which I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted,” Nottke says, “is that Facebook indeed is a global phenomenon.”
Seeding Labs in the Future
David Qualter, Operations Manager at Seeding Labs, sums up the objective of this organization: “Our goal is to train great scientists everywhere, and use Seeding Labs as a bridge to connect scientists, to form relationships, share techniques,” and facilitate a global scientific community so that “no scientist feels geographically isolated.” From the beginning, Seeding Labs has brought together labs from all over the world, integrating them into a global community that shares knowledge and resources in the pursuit of scientific discovery.