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A meeting of the minds meets the challenges of deadly disease

The scientists who fight the world’s deadliest diseases work hard to keep Ebola and other biohazards isolated from the environment. But because their labs are expensive to build and operate, they’re spread out in cities across the globe, and it can be easy for the experts to become isolated from each other.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) — responsible for safeguarding the health of people, animals, and plants in our country — recognizes that scientists do a much better job of identifying and dealing with biological threats if they work together.

With support from the Department of National Defence, the CFIA launched a new project in 2016: the Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network, to address this challenge. The network brings scientists, administrators, and others who work at these international research centres together to share their knowledge of infectious disease prevention. Now, in collaboration with two young scientists from Mitacs’ Canadian Science Policy Fellowship, the CFIA is connecting the world’s biosafety community in preparation for the threat of global disease outbreak.

Masha Cemma, having recently completed a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto, was one of the first fellows to join the Biosafety Network

“I’d just finished my PhD and was thinking about what to do next. The Network wasn’t something I’d considered before, but when I saw the information about the Mitacs fellowship, I realized this was really me. It drew from my doctoral work and my experience at the World Health Organization, and offered an opportunity to work on science diplomacy and help build something new and exciting.”

During her fellowship, Masha connected with people at the US Centres for Disease Control, the US Department of Agriculture, and biosafety labs in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia. While there had been other networks of experts before, this was the first time people working at the highest levels of containment fighting human and animal diseases had come together. It culminated in March 2016 when the CFIA invited the Network members to a conference in Winnipeg.

“There was incredible enthusiasm from all the partners,” says Masha. “Some say this is the best international partnership of its kind. We were able to identify what people want, and what they’re willing to share. We identified the gaps in knowledge and devised strategies to address them. And, most importantly, we helped people from different parts of the world build relationships with one another, and we built trust.”

Following the completion of her year-long fellowship, Masha was given the opportunity to train a new Mitacs fellow before taking on a policy advisor position at the Office of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada. April Killikelly, a PhD in Molecular Biophysics from New York University and the US National Institutes of Health, was brought in to build upon the foundation that Masha had created within the Biosafety Network.

“I’ve always thought it helps to see science not just in a technical way, but as a human pursuit,” says April. “Coordinating the Network has allowed me to return Canada and work in a high-containment space — which appeals to my scientific background and uses the communications skills I’ve developed. It’s been a dream come true.”

April continues to strengthen the Network’s community. They’ve created a secure web platform to share documents. Its members have collaborated on training materials so everyone can gain familiarity with procedures and standards in all of their countries. Last year, the Network won an award from the CFIA for innovation and best practices. Experts around the globe continue to make important connections that let them solve problems in international biosafety.

As the CFIA works towards reuniting members of the Network for another conference in 2018, April says that everyone has seen a benefit from the Canadian Science Policy Fellowship.

“For me, it’s been a great opportunity to develop my people skills to make the transition into policy, and it’s really important for people with scientific backgrounds to be involved in policy development.”

Masha agrees. “As scientists, the Mitacs fellowship has given us opportunities to be introduced to a community of people interested in science policy. That means contacts, support, and new opportunities. For the CFIA, the fellowship has been a recruitment tool that’s found the talent the Biosafety Network needs to succeed.”

 


The Canadian Science Policy Fellowship is made possible thanks to Professor Sarah Otto, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia; the Government of Canada and the Government of British Columbia; the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy; the University of Victoria; and the Canadian Science Policy Fellowship Advisory Council.