Volunteering with IPBO in Kenya
Here are the volunteers' experiences
June 15, 2023
Looking for a way to make a positive impact on sustainable agriculture? Meet IPBO, or the UGent-VIB International Plant Biotechnology Outreach organization. IPBO is a VIB team with a mission to promote advances in agriculture and improve collaboration between African and Belgian organizations.
IPBO recently organized a four-day crash course in molecular biology in Kenya. The IPBO team led the workshop with support from volunteers within the VIB community. Two volunteers, Ivy and Marianna, responded to IPBO's call for volunteers during the 2022 VIB seminar.
Marianna Decet is a PhD student in the team of Patrik Verstreken at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research. She is in her last year and works on synapse homeostasis in a physiological context and in the pathophysiology of Parkinson's disease. Ivy Cuijt is a Research Technician in the lab of Albena Jordanova at the VIB-UAntwerp Center for Molecular Neurology, working on Charcot Marie Tooth disease.
From January 2023 onward, they were involved in preparing the training with IPBO. And then, from March 20 - 24, they were in Eldoret, Kenya to deliver a crash course in molecular biology at Moi University.
This training is part of the Kringloops Labs initiative, which aims to provide a second life to laboratory equipment by repurposing it for new research and educational opportunities. The training was sponsored by Plant B+B, the Province of East Flanders, and the Marc and Nora Van Montagu Fund.
Time for some questions.
Hello, Ivy and Marianna. What inspired you to take part in this project and go teach a crash course in molecular biology at Moi University in Kenya?
Marianna: A while ago I read a report from UNESCO on the inequalities in world education and I found myself wondering about the responsibilities of highly educated people, like me. This, added to the fact that I particularly enjoy the teaching component of my job and that I always felt an attraction for Africa, made me consider this opportunity. For these reasons, the seed was already within me and frankly, because of this, I signed up without thinking too much about it. I followed my gut.
Ivy: Since my younger years, I always dreamt of doing volunteer work in Africa. As the project presented by Marc at the VIB seminar, was fully organized and paid, this was my moment to jump in. And I only had to bring my lab expertise with me. Easy.
It's a pretty intense 4-day program. Did you get a chance to do anything outside of the lab?
Ivy: We had a goodbye dinner at the end of the program, but that was about it; we worked hard. Although we had a memorable bus ride every day to the campus and back, where we could sightsee. It was a film passing by every time.
Marianna: Exactly, it was hard work, but during our one-hour commute to the University, which was a bit outside the city, we could appreciate the nature around us and have a glimpse of how people live (and how lively the streets are in the evening compared to the early morning!). The dinner on our last evening was a nice way to end the journey.
I quickly learned to let go of the things we couldn’t control. Yet we had to keep the goal in mind and not give up. I am very happy that in the end, we had a gel with bands, even with a not-so-well-working UV lamp.
- Ivy Cujit
People who are interested might wonder about the practicalities. Can you say something about how you experienced the preparation, travel, and housing?
Marianna: The IPBO team impeccably arranged everything and made it very smooth for us. We just had to make sure we had a valid passport, a visa, and the necessary vaccinations. During the preparation of the course material we could give input on the protocols we were going to use in the lab and help draft ‘evaluation’ questions for the trainees to do before and after the course.
Ivy: Besides paperwork for traveling, getting vaccines, etc we didn’t have to prepare a lot in advance. It was a long journey, but it was a faraway country as well, so that was expected. Housing was arranged in a good hotel. No luxury, but more than good enough for me!
The participants of this course are diverse; lab technicians, lecturers, students... What was the interaction with the trainees like?
Ivy: The interaction was great, everyone was interested in learning the techniques, paid attention, and worked hard. Most of the participants were trained rather theoretically, which can be challenging because working in the lab requires practical thinking; calculating dilutions, how to remove lab waste, and so on. But they caught on quickly.
Marianna: And everybody was so welcoming! There was respect from both sides, but the atmosphere was still relaxed and friendly. I could see that day by day we were gaining confidence with each other. They were more open to ask questions and there was room to crack some jokes. Among the trainees, I found the students especially engaged and curious.
The IPBO team impeccably arranged everything and made it very smooth for us. We just had to make sure we had a valid passport, a visa, and the necessary vaccinations.
- Marianna Decet
Let's flip the script. What did you learn during this crash course?
Marianna: When I was there I realized how frustrated I normally get if I am not as productive as I intend to be, especially if something is not working out for whatever reason beyond my control. I learned that sometimes it is good to go with the flow. Additionally, this experience gave me perspective: we should not take anything for granted.
Ivy: Since it was a new lab, not everything was set up as we are used to. We had to improvise a lot; I quickly learned to let go of the things we couldn’t control. Yet we had to keep the goal in mind and not give up. I am very happy that in the end, we had a gel with bands, even with a not-so-well-working UV lamp.
Finally, imagine someone reading this and being interested but not yet fully convinced to volunteer. What would you say to give them that last nudge?
Marianna: Trust that this experience will bring you so much (emotions, perspective, knowledge…) that is worth the fear of the unknown you might feel right now.
Ivy: If you don’t do it, you don’t know what you’ve missed. And you are in the best hands you can imagine. I am so grateful to Marc and Grace for this opportunity, and together with Marianna they were the best team I could dream of to share this experience. And, one last take-home message: Hakuna matata!
Here's a video, courtesy of IPBO, on Ivy's and Marianna's experience:
Do you want to get involved? Read more about the crash course here, and keep an eye out for the next call for volunteers!