The Ant Who Learned to Be an Elephant

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  30 Sep 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6051, pp. 1824-1825
DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6051.1824-d

IN 1998, THE EUROPEAN AND DEVELOPING Countries Clinical Trials Partnership established regional networks of excellence in sub- Saharan Africa to strengthen research capacity for clinical trials on tuberculosis, HIV/ AIDS, and malaria (1). Through this program, the Faculty of Health Sciences of the University Marien Ngouabi of Brazzaville, like a poor, tiny Ant in an African tale, prepared to partner with a magnificent Elephant: the University of Tübingen in Germany. The Elephant is beautiful, muscular, and respected by all the animals in the jungle. The Ant is small and ignored. Could an Ant possibly build a strong relationship with an Elephant? This Ant was going to try.


First, the Ant sought national authorization to conduct a clinical research project that would develop baseline studies and collect baseline data necessary for future clinical trials. After submitting the research protocol, the Ant waited 15 long months for approval by Congo's only Institutional Ethics Committee, and two more months for authorization from the Ministry of Health. A 17-month delay could compromise the rest of the project, thought the Ant with alarm. The work plan was often misunderstood, and as the Ant explained again and again how the money would be used to address specifi c challenges, she worried that the Elephant would move on and leave her behind.

The Ant realized that a good research team must be multidisciplinary, consisting of junior and seniors scientists selected by an experienced panel from a list of qualifi ed applicants. This would be a challenge in a place with limited postgraduate academic opportunities. To overcome this limitation, the Ant launched an open call for applications. The other animals in the jungle viewed the Ant's new approach with suspicion.

To invest in infrastructure, the Ant renovated an abandoned facility into the first molecular biology laboratory of the Faculty of Health Sciences, and then equipped it. Now the other animals started to appreciate the Ant's hard work. They congratulated her for the change and encouraged her to maintain the spirit.

To create a culture of research, the Ant had to be thoughtful and innovative. She stimulated scientifi c discussions by implementing regular scientific meetings. But how would she attract students and scientists to these meetings and foster interest and loyalty? The Ant formed brigades of students to urge others to participate. A year later, the seminar room was always filled with an enthusiastic audience.

Once she had met these challenges, the Ant invited the Elephant to her home to share a cup of tea. She told him about all of her accomplishments, and showed him the new facilities. When the Elephant returned home, he was smiling and convinced. And he wondered, “What kind of Ant is this, this Ant who acts like an Elephant?”

It was just as the Ant had hoped. Next, the Ant hopes to sustain positive momentum and establish stable local research teams that will regularly publish in international scientific journals (2). The moral of the story: For young Congolese scientists wondering how to contribute scientifically to their country, the metamorphosis from tiny Ant to majestic Elephant is possible, but it will require time, cunning, and determination.


Navigate This Article