Start main page content

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.

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

A virtual event, held on Monday, 7 June 2021 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.

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.

“START has been an exciting journey catalysed by the GCRF grant which has reaped fantastic results in a remarkably short space of time,” said Professor Chris Nicklin, Science Group Leader and Principal Investigator (PI) in the GCRF START grant programme. “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.”

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. 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, affiliated to the University of the Witwatersrand. Highly active in mentoring young female scientists and taking part in school outreach activities, Thandeka encourages the next generation to pursue STEM careers.

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.

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.

“As well as facilitating amazing science, the GCRF START grant played a substantial role in my career progression as a scientist,” Mohamed said “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.”

“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.”

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

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.

More about the GCRF START grant: