Coming Together (Virtually) for a Healthier Africa

One thing we love about working with scientists is that they are motivated by trying to make the world a better place. They see problems, such as the need to apply the latest in data science to improve public health in Africa, and they step up. That’s what Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa) is all about. The new program is run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Common Fund. The kick-off event for the program was a meeting scheduled for June 2020 in Uganda with about 350 scientists. And then pandemic struck, COVID-related travel restrictions went into place, the meeting was converted into a virtual one — and registration grew to more than1600 participants.

At KI, we’re always ready to step into uncharted territory with our clients. But, truth be told, as we watched the number of registrants climb, we had to scramble; inventing technology, creating new virtual networking tools and devising ways to keep the event interactive. Our largest virtual event at that time had included about 400 participants and NIH’s largest event had about 250 participants. So, we did what we do best: we got creative.

We designed interactive sessions built around scientific presentations and moderated Q&A, and added interactive poll questions, small breakout groups, and a networking platform in KIStorm to allow participants to get to know each other and engage with nearly 100 potential partner organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Data Science Africa.

We also created a unique Partnership and Innovation Marketplace during which participants had the choice of joining a meet-up via Zoom with representatives from 30 organizations; a Markov Mixer (a.k.a. Speed Networking); a Regional Collaboration breakout session or visiting a casual networking lounge for pre-arranged appointments or random conversations. During the three-hour live Partnership and Innovation Marketplace, participants could also stop by virtual booths to meet other researchers looking to form collaborations.

Smiling Faces 

The virtual Symposium was a seven-day event held over the span of two weeks from August 10 through August 21, 2020 in which participants met for two hours a day. Laura Povlich, Ph.D. is a Program Officer at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Fogarty International Center and the coordinator for DS-I Africa. Povlich admits she was skeptical that participants would be willing to network and engage. 

“Seeing how much enjoyment people got out of that networking aspect of it and seeing the smiling faces was really gratifying for me and totally changed my mind about whether the virtual format is worth the effort.” Still, Povlich pointed out that virtual events are not for everyone. Some people struggle with technology, others struggle with networking. But for those who are comfortable with both, the payoff is worth the time and effort. 

The Symposium was the first in a series of events to highlight funding opportunities, help researchers form new collaborations and introduce researchers to potential partners. Amit Mistry, Ph.D., is Senior Scientist at NIH’s Fogarty International Center and in charge of planning the event. “Overall I think we did a lot more than people expected,” Mistry says. 

Getting the Word Out

Mistry says the leadership behind DS-I Africa had three goals from their in-person meeting which they worked to achieve with the virtual Symposium. “One of our goals was to promote the new program and its new funding opportunities. We also wanted people to know our priorities so that we’d get stronger applications. We also wanted to study the state of the field to get a baseline we’ll be able to use as we assess our impact down the road.” Going virtual, Mistry says, a third goal became creating space for people to network and meet each other; something that would have happened naturally at an in-person meeting. “We especially wanted people to come together across different disciplines, across different sectors and across different geographies,” Mistry says. 

Povlich says this networking is crucial to getting the kind of applications for which the program is looking. “There’s a significant expertise in data science in Africa, but there’s not a strong network. And so we hoped this event would help spur the formation of a more collaborative network.”

Forming New Collaborations

Organizers say that all of the goals for the in-person meeting were met by the virtual one, including networking amongst participants that lead to the formation of new research collaborations. Lillian Prince is one of those researchers. Prince is a Ph.D. student studying epidemiology at the University of Chicago. She is part of a research team headed by Ayman Al-Hendy, M.D., Ph.D., a professor and director of translational research from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Illinois/Chicago. The team studies, among other conditions, uterine fibroids. African-American women are three to four times more likely to have these non-cancerous tumors and experience pain, anemia and decreased fertility as a result. (A bill addressing the need for research and education, particularly of minority women, currently sits before the U.S. Congress called the Uterine Fibroid Research and Education Act of 2020.)

“African-American women are disproportionately affected by these tumors,” Prince says. “We’re really trying to understand why that is. Is it something in their environment? Is it genetics? Is it diet? It could be a multitude of those factors that influence the development of those tumors.” The University of Chicago team participated in the Symposium hoping to find additional colleagues in Africa with whom they could potentially partner with to apply for a grant that would establish a research hub in Africa dedicated to studying uterine fibroids. The hope is that what they discover would help shed light on why African and African-American women are more likely to suffer from uterine fibroids. 

During the Partnership and Innovation Marketplace, Prince met Kwasi Hgbleke, Ph.D., who is from Ghana and runs two non-profit organizations there. He and his colleagues from Harvard where he recently completed a postdoc, and MIT are now collaborating with Al-Hendy’s team. “DS-I Africa (Symposium) was instrumental in introducing people who otherwise may not have met to do this important research, especially on the African continent,” Prince says.

Leveraging Data Science

Emile Chimusa, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Cape Town. Chimusa research focuses on applying machine learning to omics data to understand human variation. Ultimately, he is working toward developing risk assessments for various cancer types based on genome-wide association data in African populations. 

As one of the presenters in the Partnership and Innovation Marketplace, Chimusa came to the virtual event looking for collaborators. He found two potential collaborators: William Hersch, MD, of the Oregon Health and Science University and Subha Madhavan, Ph.D., of Georgetown University. Currently, few genetic risk assessments are based on African populations. The team hopes to change that, Chimusa says. “We want to come up with a computer-based clinical decision support tool that is based on African data.”

Here to Stay

Following the Symposium, DS-I Africa has hosted a weekly State of Data Science series. Registration for all events is now up to 2236 participants. In December, KI will facilitate a Landscape Workshop to glean key learnings from the entire virtual DS-I Africa experience.

The clients and participants we talk to about virtual events like this one all agree: there’s no substitute for an in-person meeting. But, as events like DS-I Africa are proving, there are creative ways to make virtual meetings interactive and engaging — all while working to make the world a better place.