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MicroTrop 2014: Lessons in international collaboration and research in a developing country


By Erika Foster and Charlotte AlsterUntitled

Earlier this summer, we had the opportunity to participate in a Tropical Soil Microbial Ecology seminar called “MicroTrop.” The program took place in Dakar, Senegal, a francophone country on the western most tip of Africa. The project was funded through a National Science Foundation grant, with the goal of bringing together ten young researchers from the United States and ten researchers from African countries to participate in lectures, discussions, and basic lab trainings in soil microbial ecology. The lectures in the first two weeks ranged from “-Omics” to “Stable Isotope Probing” to “Defining Diversity in Microbial Ecology” and led to many interesting discussions that would often continue on into meal times. However, it was not the lectures, but the interactions in the lab and with other students that we found most valuable. From this experience, we put together a few “regles de la recherche” that were reaffirmed from this experience:

  1. Be flexible, field work will not go as planned—As most of you would probably agree, field experiments are a necessary, but rarely simple, part of ecological research. However, we found that field complications were amplified when working abroad. As part of the program, we were tasked to do mini-projects with one African student paired with one American student. In both of our projects, our field maps resembled very little of what the actual site manipulations turned out to be. In the mini-project that Charlotte worked on, we were looking to compare differences in nematode and bacterial populations from a vegetable farm in the center of Dakar.  We were told part of the farm was irrigated with sewage water and fertilized with sludge from a nearby plant and that the other part was irrigated with lake water and fertilized with horse manure. However, upon going into the field to collect samples, we found that this was only loosely true. Each farm plot, only a few square meters wide, was farmed by a different farmer who often employed completely different farming practices from his close-by neighbor. This made finding true replicates nearly impossible. For example, one lettuce farmer applied sludge in February, but then applied horse manure in April. The lettuce farmer next to him applied sludge and a mixture of horse and cattle manure in January, and then again in March and May. Just getting a full site history and talking to each farmer about what different practices he used each year in the past decade could easily take six months! At least the farmers seemed very interested in talking with the scientists and helping us understand site history in order to get information about their fields. The land, however, was just simply not as homogeneous as we are used to seeing in the United States.
  2. Open, clear communication is key—Especially when working through the French language barrier, slowing down communication is important. You must ensure that all parties in your group are involved in the discussion and understand the rationale behind your research project. For Erika’s mini-project, she worked with a student from South Africa and a student from Madagascar on an experiment looking at microbial community response to dry down of soils. In debating numerous aspects of the lab incubation (size of incubation jars, frequency of respiration measurements, length of analysis), there were many intense discussions, all of which were in English. After a few of these discussions, we realized that our colleague from Madagascar was getting quieter and quieter, not understanding everything. As we were changing our minds so frequently, she had given up trying to follow. Although she seemed to prefer not getting involved in the heated discussion, it reminded us that certain individuals will be more vocal about the amount they are understanding and participation levels. Ultimately, personality and culture play a key role in communication and decision-making. It is important to ensure that all voices are heard in the planning process, even when language obstacles makes this increasingly difficult.Untitled3
  3. Expect differences in research techniques, even with the simple protocols—For example, for the mini-projects, most participants received help from the institute lab technicians. We had an experienced lab technician named Mustafa aide us in many aspects of our mini-project. Erika’s group worked with him one afternoon to help with titrations for our ester-linked fatty acid methyl ester (EL-FAME) analysis. After he settled in to help our colleague from Madagascar, Erika went on to complete some soil grinding in a separate room. After 45 minutes, she came back over to check on the titration to discover only two samples had been neutralized. We were running out of lab time that day; what could be taking so long? It turns out that the lab’s protocol required timing and waiting exactly five minutes for each reading to stabilize, titrate with a few drops of KOH, wait 5 minutes, titrate, then wait 5 minutes again. We realized that yes titration can be tricky, but this was agonizingly slow. Erika carefully explained in sub-par French that for the beginning of the titration, waiting precisely 5 minutes at every stage was not necessary as long as the pH meter stabilized. This was difficult to do not just because of the explanation in French, but also because of the expectation that lab protocols should be followed to a “T”, regardless of the specific situation. However this confusion over something seemingly simple made for some good laughs along the way and recognition of differences in expectations in the lab even at a very basic level.Untitled4
  4. Anticipate a variety of different social expectations—”Old-fashioned” notions of men and women’s roles were very much alive in predominately Islamic Senegal. In the field, we both found that if you were working with any of the male African participants, it was very difficult to actually do your own fieldwork. Men would kindly insist on carrying your field equipment, on taking your soil cores, or having you rest in the shade and just observe the field work. While this was certainly different than what we were use to, it was much easier to just accept the help than argue that you were actually capable of carrying your own bucket.Untitled5
  5. Be prepared to encounter seemingly ridiculous rules and just go with it—The research station we worked at in Dakar was a joint lab between the Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research (ISRA) and the French Institute for Research Development (IRD), which is dedicated to the development of research in tropical countries. This collaboration of institutes often created rules that seemed rather mysterious to the Americans in attendance. For instance, the institutes were adamant that you must wear a lab coat at all times. This rule seems important and necessary since safety is always first, or so we thought. Then came the 85°F day, with close to 100% humidity, when we had to sieve soils, and were reprimanded for the not wearing the especially thick lab coats in the soil prep room. Or the time when Charlotte was doing nematode counts using only a microscope and a couple of slides and was reminded to “apporte la blouse!” Gotta watch out for those nematodes, they may jump off the slides and bite. It was unlikely that wearing the lab coat was a safety precaution because long pants, close-toed shoes, and safety goggles were not required. We think the justification of the rule came down to appearances. After all, if you look like a pro, then of course you’ll be better suited to conduct top-notch research. As a scientist, it is only natural to demand a logical explanation for rules, but in this type of situation we found it better to simply go with the flow.Untitled6
  6. Have a sense of humor to see that everything as a learning experience—Erika gained quite a bit of experience with this during the field sampling for the mini-project. We were sampling with a shrub-millet polyculture field, but using a half-filled out plot map. In spite of the effort to leave as early as possible to drive two hours to the “long-term” ecological research site in Thies, a series of unfortunate events led to our group sampling during at the hottest part of the day. As the two African students intelligently went to go take a break and sit in the shade, the Americans stubbornly worked away to finish up under the intense African sun. What’s fieldwork without a little suffering? Overall it was one of those experiences that can either be extremely frustrating or ridiculous, depending on how you choose to approach it. We choose to joke about it, while sweating out all the water we could possibly drink and watching Erika’s Chacos literally melt apart from the heat of the sand. In the end we were able to collect our samples, across treatments accidentally, but more importantly help another grad student with his more legitimate field project. So perhaps the day was a success in a different way. It’s all about your perspective when faced with such challenges.


All in all, we found a shrug, a smile, and maybe a joke or two goes a long way in diffusing situations and communicating that all will turn out well in the end. A little bit of kindness and a sense of humor can help transcend cultural and language barriers and helped to make our experience more enjoyable and productive. Despite all of the challenges, we found international research collaboration to be incredibly rewarding and well worth the effort.




Erika Foster and Charlotte Alster are PhD students in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology at Colorado State University. Erika is affiliated with the Natural Resource Ecology Lab and is a student in Soil and Crop Sciences. She studies sustainable management strategies for adapting CO agricultural systems to drought and how these alter plant available water and nutrients through altering enzymatic activity. She enjoys pretending she can speak French and drinking delicious Senegalese baobab juice. Charlotte is a student in the Department of Biology. She studies how diversity in soil microbial communities can impact ecosystem function. Charlotte enjoys spending her time floating in Lac Rose off the coast of Senegal.