GCRF Funding of Synchrotron Techniques for Africa lauded as great success

Results include 80+ researchers now collaborating from multiple continents, over 50 world class papers published, and a new generation of scientists trained 

A virtual event, held on Monday 7 June celebrated the many successes of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) START grant and the end of the three-year £3.7M grant provided by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) in support of the Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (START) programme – a unique collaboration between scientists in the UK and Africa, and the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source (Diamond). STFC supports the UK’s scientific community by working in partnership with universities, research organisations and government to ensure that researchers have access to large high-quality facilities.  

Achievements to date have included more than 50 papers published, with dozens still in the pipeline. Nearly 20 protein structures were deposited in the global Protein Data Bank and over 230 Diamond synchrotron shifts carried out.  30 Postdoctoral Research Assistants/Fellows (PDRA’s/PDRF’s) have been funded, and numerous students introduced to synchrotron science through several workshops, secondments and visits delivered in person and remotely in Africa, the UK and beyond. 

Dr Andani Mulelu and Dr Jeremy Woodward in front of the cryo-electron microscope at the University of Cape Town, South Africa (UCT). 
Photo Credit Rebekka Stredwick. ©Diamond Light Source 

The event, hosted by Diamond, chaired by eminent scientist and grant Co-Investigator (Co-I), Professor Sir Richard Catlow, Professor at Cardiff University, University College London and Foreign Secretary at The Royal Society, was attended by START members, funders, and other stakeholders. The event featured case studies, early career impacts, and the importance of Diamond’s collaboration. Research topics included (amongst others), energy materials as catalysts for CO2 hydrogenation to reduce CO2 accelerated climate change; the development and optimisation of thin-film photovoltaic devices (solar cells) for sustainable energy; improving drug design for hypertension and blood pressure (ACE); the world’s first published nitrilaise structure and Africa’s first CryoEM results using Diamond’s eBIC facility. Professor Chris Nicklin, Science Group Leader and Principal Investigator (PI) in the GCRF START grant programme, said, 

“START has been an exciting journey catalysed by the GCRF grant which has reaped fantastic results in a remarkably short space of time. By providing the new generation of synchrotron users with access to world class equipment and investing in their skills and capacity, research in the UK and Africa has been enriched and deepened. Going forward, there’s a huge appetite across the START network for a ‘START 2’, especially if the ambition of an African Light Source is to be realised. We are currently looking at ways to continue the momentum and build on START’s promising legacy.” 

Aerial view of the UK’s national synchrotron, Diamond Light Source Ltd, at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire, UK. ©Diamond Light Source 

Dr Thandeka Moyo and Dr Carmien Tolmie are rising stars in the newly emerging Structural Biology network in South Africa. Funded as PDRF’s by the GCRF START grant, their successes stand out in fulfilling the key aims of START, including promoting equality and inclusiveness in science to challenge the under-representation of women. Carmien has made great strides in biocatalysis, investigating enzymes as drug targets for fungal infectious diseases which claim many lives, especially amongst immune-compromised patients. Recently promoted to academic staff at South Africa’s University of the Free State (UFS), she attributes her successes to the mentoring and training she received through the GCRF START grant which funded a secondment to Diamond and the University of Oxford, exposing her to cutting edge scientific techniques such as XChem fragment screening.  

Thandeka’s achievements involve notable new biology in HIV (bNAbs) vaccine development projects and Covid-19 research at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases. Highly active in mentoring young female scientists and taking part in school outreach activities, Zimbabwean Thandeka encourages the next generation to pursue STEM careers.  

Dr Carmien Tolmie purifying proteins using an AKTA chromatography system at the University of the Free State’s Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, South Africa.
Photo credit: Rodolpho do Aido Machado. ©Diamond Light Source  
Dr Thandeka Moyo, GCRF START Postdoctoral Research Fellow from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) and affiliated to the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.
Photo credit: Thandeka Moyo. ©Diamond Light Source

Dr Mohamed Fadlalla started out in 2018 as a GCRF START-funded Postdoctoral Research Fellow investigating energy materials at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and has since been promoted into a leadership role as a Research Officer. His story demonstrates how scientific development and scientist career development can work symbiotically, in this case assisted by the GCRF START grant.  Mohamed said,

“As well as facilitating amazing science, the GCRF START grant played a substantial role in my career progression as a scientist. This has not only focused my interest into energy materials catalyst development, I have also learnt new energy materials characterisation techniques and conducted experiments at Diamond which were very successful. I started teaching the Catalysis Institute’s MSc. course where I now pass on my new skills to up-and-coming scientists in Africa and have recently been awarded an NRF-Thuthuka grant and UCT block grant to enable my research going forward.” 

Dr Mohamed Fadlalla, Research Officer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Catalysis. Photo credit: Rebekka Stredwick. © Diamond Light Source.  

“If you don’t have this kind of network and support, it is incredibly difficult, for those who are at the start of this field,” said GCRF START Co-I, Professor Michael Claeys, from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Catalysis and South Africa’s DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis, c*change. “It is about building confidence, so this is where the GCRF START grant has played an incredibly important role, improving output and significantly lowering potential hesitancy to use synchrotron techniques, which can seem overwhelming to those new in the field.”  

Dr Gwyndaf Evans, START Life Sciences Principal Investigator and Principal beamline scientist on Diamond’s VMXm beamline said,

“It has been rewarding to see the relatively modest investment of time and money can have such a major impact on the sustainability of research expertise, on the development of careers in Africa, on access to large scale facilities around the world, including improving our own systems at Diamond (such as remote access), and to the nurturing of collaborations and networks in South Africa. In Structural Biology, there have been valuable exchanges and collaborations especially XChem laying the foundations for drug discovery work. START is the beginning of embedding the structural research culture in South Africa and other groups around the world. We look forward to what the future holds.” 

Funded by the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) Global Challenges Research Fund, the GCRF START grant aims to meet key UN Sustainable Development Goals through Energy Materials for novel devices and improvements in energy efficiency, affordability, and storage (batteries and fuel cells) including renewable energy sources; and Structural Biology to better understand diseases, develop drug targets and vaccines, and drive ‘green’ biotechnology solutions. 

Examples of Achievements 

More than 230 Diamond synchrotron shifts;  over 50 papers published, with dozens in the pipeline; 30 postdoctoral Research Assistants/Fellows (PDRA’s/PDRF’s) funded and numerous students introduced to synchrotron science; 3 ANSDAC workshops and 2 CCP4 workshops sponsored; many crystals and novel structures solved, with more than 20 protein structures deposited in the global protein bank (PDB’s); 8 PDRA’s/PDRF’s trained in Cryo-EM techniques and more than 30 students attended Cryo-EM workshops; PDRA’s involved in the development of new facilities/equipment in the UK and South Africa; 6 fully capable crystallography laboratories equipped across South Africa including in previously under-resourced universities; and multiple workshops, secondments and visits delivered in person and remotely in Africa, the UK and beyond. 

Dr Thulani Nyathi at his PhD award ceremony at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Photo Credit: Linda Vos.
© www.lindavos.co.za


Examples of follow on opportunities: Prof. Erick Strauss’ laboratory at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, winning a two year AAS Grand Challenges Africa grant focusing on Antimicrobial Resistance and drug discovery; Dr Francis Otieno from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, achieving a British Council Newton Travel grant to conduct experiments on the subject of solar energy with GCRF START’s Co-I, Prof. Moritz Riede, at the University of Oxford; Prof. Dirk Opperman’s group at the University of the Orange Free State winning a Horizon 2020 ERA-NET-Cofund on Food Systems and Climate grant; and various groups able to access to other light sources and neutron sources around the world. 

Dr Francis Otieno touring the UK’s national synchrotron Diamond Light Source’s beamline I07. Photo credit :Daniel Wamwangi. ©Diamond Light Source

GCRF START collaborators

START members hail from the UK, South Africa, Lesotho, Kenya, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Swaziland, Namibia, the DRC, and the Sudan, amongst many other countries.      

About the GCRF START grant 

The GCRF START grant is a collaborative project that seeks to foster the development of Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (START). It builds partnerships between world leading scientists in Africa and the UK working together on research using synchrotron science. Funded by the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) Global Challenges Research Fund, the GCRF START grant is delivered by UKRI through Diamond shareholders (the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Wellcome Trust). At the heart of START sits the community of co-investigators whose work in the relevant scientific disciplines is world-leading in their fields. They support a wider group of students and post-doctoral researchers whose contribution to START is vital to nurture future capacity and leadership in the African scientific research community. Working on experiments at the UK’s synchrotron, Diamond, START researchers and students will bring insights to sustainable energy and improvement in health that will have long-lasting legacies across Africa. 

For further media information: please contact Diamond Communications: Isabelle Boscaro-Clarke +44 1235 778130

Image 7 From left to right: Adam Shnier from the Energy Materials Research Group at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Rachel Kilbride, Joel Smith and Mary O’Kane from the Electronic and Photonic Molecular Materials Group at the University of Sheffield, UK. The scientists are conducting wide-angle X-ray scattering measurements at the UK’s national synchrotron Diamond Light Source (Diamond). 
Photo credit: Onkar Game. ©University of Sheffield / EPMM Group
Dr Koketso Mogwera at the Strauss Laboratory, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
Photo credit: Blake Blacomb ©Diamond Light Source
Mohamed Abdelaal from Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, using the glove box for sample handling in the Vacuum Evaporator (ECHO1) at the University of Oxford in the UK. Photo credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. ©Diamond Light Source

Additional information:

Nicklin, C., Stredwick, R. & Sewell, S. (2022) Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology: A Step-Change in Structural Biology and Energy Materials, Synchrotron Radiation News, 35:1, 14-19, DOI: 10.1080/08940886.2022.2043684