The African ISME Ambassadors Meeting was held during 1st-7th April across the Main Campus of the University of Pretoria and at Muldersdrift in conjunction with the South African Society of Microbiology meeting. The main activity was an ISME Ambassadors workshop with the ISME President, ISME Treasurer and ISME International Board Member as well as 10 ISME Ambassadors representing 9 African countries. During this workshop, after a brief introduction to ISME by Colin Murrell and an overview of the Ambassador Program by Nicole Webster, the Ambassadors of the different countries presented information about research opportunities and challenges in their respective countries. They also summarized information obtained from other microbial ecologists at the national level, from surveys they conducted in preparation for this meeting. The ISME Executive and Board members were impressed by the diversity of microbial ecology being undertaken across Africa and the commitment of the Ambassadors to expand their collaborative networks and identify student training opportunities. A particular highlight was the strengths in research across a range of unique habitats in Africa, although this research is often not represented in the ISME Symposia or the ISME Journal. A summary of the general surveys of microbial ecology for each country which had been prepared by ISME Board Member Cecilia Alonso was then presented by Nicole Webster, and a discussion and subsequent break-out meetings were undertaken by all participants, focusing on developing a strategy for growth and support of microbial ecology research across Africa.
After discussing multiple focus areas, Ambassadors agreed to submit a proposal to undertake a regional African meeting and student training workshop immediately prior to ISME 2020. The timing of this event would capitalise on the availability of speakers / skilled trainers / world leading expertise from leading international delegates who would be attending ISME 2020. This would also encourage participation in ISME 2020 for researchers that travel across Africa to attend both events. Ambassadors articulated the financial difficulties encountered by African researchers associated with ISME membership and conference registration. Discussions also covered the development and support for more microbial ecology activities at the national level, specially focused on the training of human resources (e.g. postgraduate courses and workshops).
This meeting was linked to the South African Society for Microbiology, which brought together international researchers and students, with a special emphasis on the participation of African students. Additional ISME activities included: i) A University of Pretoria special lecture on antimicrobial resistance (Mark Bailey), ii) Tembisa school outreach activities (Murrell, Bailey, Webster), iii) Plenary presentation on isoprene (Colin Murrell), iii) Introduction to ISME & membership benefits lecture (Colin Murrell), iv) Lecture on how to get published in ISME J (Mark Bailey), v) Plenary presentation on sponge symbiosis (Nicole Webster), Judging and awarding of ISME Student poster and oral prizes (Murrell, Bailey, Webster). Numerous social events provided additional opportunities for ISME and African Ambassadors to interact with each other and with the SASM delegates.
Overall, feedback received from all Ambassadors showed that this Ambassador activity was pivotal in bringing together the microbial ecology community in Africa and in developing a network of enthusiastic representatives who will take forward the ideas outlined above. The meeting also allowed us to formalise Ambassadors for Ghana, Namibia, Tunisia and Zimbabwe and identify strong candidates for Ambassadors in Morocco and Kenya. The Ambassadors appreciated that ISME had established the Development and Promotional funding schemes and was using these resources to promote activities in Africa. Ambassadors were also extremely grateful for the platform it provided to network and develop regional activities which would not have been possible without this opportunity for personal contact. Overall we feel that this was an excellent use of ISME resources to promote microbial ecology globally.