Originally from Nigeria, Jumai Abioye has come to Glasgow to study for a PhD in biomedical engineering. She’s conducting the basic research that could create a tool capable of cutting viruses such as HIV out of the genome.
When she’s not building tools in a lab, she’s building a company – the Initiative for the Advancement of Education in Africa (IAE Africa) – with a vision of improving the quality of education in her home continent. The method: to promote studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in a way that can be applied in an African context – where there may not be reliable access to electricity or an internet connection, for example.
“My work is in genome editing, which is getting into mainstream medicine now. If someone has cancer, it might be that there is a specific sequence in their genome that is responsible for that, providing the information that is causing the cells to grow.
It's about going into the genome and saying: can we just cut it out? Or can we replace it with a totally different sequence?
There are a lot of tools that people are using to do that. We don't think they're good enough. That's why we're making a new tool, using enzymes called recombinases.
What they do is they find a particular sequence of DNA and they cut it, and then they bring the two sides and they join them back together. My research is a systematic process of attempting to design something new by looking at all of the properties of the recombinases.
They are so specific. They're locked to what they do. I’m trying to discover if I can unlock that and then lock them into something different that is useful to us. I do that with HIV. If we can cut out HIV that is already in the genome, and get an intact genome back, then hopefully the virus would die off. It becomes a random thing that a cell can get rid of by itself.
This is a field that needs tools. We do the bench research of creating those tools. And the way it works with research, and with a PhD, is that you create something and somebody else comes in and makes it better. Then someone else comes in and makes that better. You realise that you're not the messiah who's going to save the field. You contribute your part.
So, success would be getting this to a fairly good place for somebody else, or other groups, to come in and take it forward. Some other people who do clinical research might want to push it forward and say, can we get this tool into clinical trials? People are doing clinical trials with genomic editing tools across the world. Maybe 10 years down the line I will be able to see that and think: oh, I helped create that. I did something to make that happen.
I studied microbiology at university in Nigeria. A lot of people that I graduated with, they don't have jobs. There are no jobs for people to feed into. So with IAE Africa, my goal is to take STEM education and to apply it in an African context. Because our problem is teaching knowledge where it doesn’t fit.
At home, I don’t have electricity 24/7. If you’re teaching me things that need electricity, or a stable internet connection, then it doesn’t apply to my world. What we need is to get STEM into real life. We don’t need to do what the world is doing. We just need to do what works for us.
Some of the ways I want to do this is through introducing relevant competitions around STEM to young people. Another thing we're doing is we're starting STEM clubs in universities across Africa, getting young Africans together in a group and saying, can you create something? If you bring this energy together in a multidisciplinary field – you have maybe a lab scientist and you have an engineer and a computer scientist - can you create a product that’s useful to us here and now?
We want to build partnerships as opposed to simply raising money. Can we find people who are willing to take up interns, or are willing to donate resources to our clubs to run the projects they want to do? Can we create change even with little money? Sometimes what you can offer is a space on your team or 30 minutes of mentorship to a young person somewhere and that counts for a lot.
I’d love to say that I'm an African-changer. I am a world-changer; I'd love to say I am, because what I'm looking to do is to let education translate into success.
We’re more than 170 million people in Nigeria, so if you want to be heard, you need to have a very loud voice. That makes you more pushy. And living in a world where you have a lot of poverty and you can see a lot of riches as well – it’s so imbalanced - you know that you have to do something to get out of the poverty cycle.
Maybe I'm brave. Maybe. But for me it's always about the bigger picture of creating change and making sure more people can have a better life.”
More about Glasgow IAE Africa: iaeafrica.org