By Mary Ryan
mount meru in background of Arusha city

Mount Meru seen from Arusha. Image: Phase9

Researchers and stakeholders from around the globe gathered at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania, last month for the annual ZELS Grantholders’ Meeting. Hosted by LLH’s disease drivers project, SEEDZ, and the ZooLinK project, delegates made their way to the top floor of NM-AIST, where we greeted them with coffee, an ambitious agenda and spectacular views of Mount Meru.

We began with the formal opening of the meeting by our guest of honour, Permanent Secretary Dr Maria Mashingo, followed by a formal welcome from the Acting Vice Chancellor of NM-AIST, Professor Osmond Kaunde and SEEDZ collaborator Professor Joram Buza. Following our opening speeches, we immediately dove into an ambitious programme of catching up, sharing tips and planning for the upcoming year

ZELS overview

We kicked off with the first of the updates from across the ZELS projects, providing an overview of the progress this programme is making. By the end of the meeting, we’d heard from everyone, a whirlwind tour of zoonotic disease and emerging livestock systems. From catching up on novel schistosome hybrids in Senegal, to characterising genetic diversity of avian influenza in Pakistan, to understanding tsetse and trypanosomiasis in northern Tanzania, the projects are racing ahead with their individual research objectives.

Not to be left behind, our LLH team highlighted the monumental data collection and preliminary results from SEEDZ, the establishment of a working Brucella culture pipeline and preliminary results from our brucellosis project, and the success of the zoonoses lab and preliminary results from our meat risks project, HAZEL.

The room was filled with both excitement and nervousness – with members of the ZELS Independent Advisory Group in attendance and the funders watching, all of the projects were eager to show how they are improving our understanding of zoonotic disease across a broad range of changing livestock systems. The diversity of projects and the eagerness to compare notes helped fuel the main part of our time together: sharing ideas and experiences to improve everyone’s chance of success.

Time to talk

The core part of our programme reflected feedback from last year’s meeting suggesting the most important feature of a gathering like this is to talk to each other. With that in mind, group discussions were critical to the meeting plans. Each group comprised representatives from different projects, funders, stakeholders and career stages, including all of the ZELS Associated Studentship (ZELS-AS) students.

With a wealth of experience available, we took the opportunity to share thoughts in sessions on the Challenges and Solutions encountered thus far, Advancing Interdisciplinarity, Stakeholder Engagement, and Common Themes and Links between the projects. Our group conversations formed the basis of panel discussions, in which our appointed rapporteurs shared their groups’ key points with the meeting.

What did we learn?

Having such a deep bench of expertise in the room offered a rare chance to identify strengths and things to work on.

One of the key lessons learned from ZELS so far is the importance of time – time to get set up, to get ethical approvals in place, to adjust to local political and logistical challenges – and the need for funders to appreciate this when projects make their annual reports.

Group work at the 2017 ZELS Grantholders’ Meeting. Image: Mary Ryan.

The groups highlighted the importance of trust and patience to our successful interdisciplinary partnerships, but the challenge of publishing and evaluation of interdisciplinary funding applications shows that there is still work to do.

Tailoring messages to key stakeholders, in terms of timing, cultures, language and what our stakeholders actually need proved to be the central theme of the Stakeholder Engagement session, very important to bear in mind as several projects enter their final year and are turning their attention to impact and engagement.

Finally, sharing techniques, tools, facilities and resources, and beginning to do so early in programmes like this, was a critical area of the Common Themes session.

Overall, the importance of working together, sharing ideas, communication and creating early links between projects were continually highlighted throughout the meeting – things to keep in mind as thoughts already turn to possibilities for the next funding calls in this area.

If meetings like this can be judged by the new friendships, ideas and collaborative possibilities that exist by the time people get back on their planes to head home, I think we can consider our gathering in the shadow of Mount Meru to be a resounding success.

Mary Ryan is the programme administrator for LLH.

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