Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Nerds without borders – Alex Ademokun


Today’s nerd is my friend and former colleague Alex Ademokun (who can be found on twitter as @AAlex_A)…


Dr Alex Ademokun – attempting to hide his deep nerdiness behind some cool shades

I am an immunologist which means I have an interest in understanding how the body fights infections or other unpleasant surprises.  I have a BSc in Biochemistry, a Masters in Immunology and PhD in Molecular Immunology.

My PhD focused on understanding how the regulation of certain types of genes affects our ability to fight infections.  Basically what determines whether a particular gene is turned on or off during an immune response.

After my PhD I did a postdoc at Kings College London looking at why certain types of vaccines do not protect elderly people as well as we thought. We suggested that changes in the make-up of the immune system with age affect the ability of the elderly to respond to certain vaccines.

2. What do you do now?

I am the Programme Manager, Evidence-Informed Policy Making (EIPM) at INASP and Director of the VakaYiko Consortium.  INASP supports global availability, access, production and use of research for development with a strong emphasis on the global.

The programme I manage, EIPM, is focused very much on the last mile of that process, the use of research by policy makers to achieve development goals.  We do this by providing training to policy makers and their staff in how to understand and use research.  For instance providing the skills needed to know where to get reliable data on malaria prevention options; or to understand the limits of different types of research methods; or the scientific consensus on climate change.

We recognise that policies are made by considering a number of factors but advocate for research evidence to be a key one of those factors.

3. What has research got to do with international development?

From the obvious fact that scientific research can help tackle the biggest global challenges like climate change, pandemics, cybercrime etc. to the fact that there is increasing interest in using scientific methodologies to understand how development programmes work. Research has got everything to do with development.

Finding relevant solutions to the issues I just mentioned requires research into new technologies but research is also important to solve less ‘global’, more ‘local’ issues which do not make mainstream headlines.

For example diarrhoea related deaths are a major problem in India and other countries.  There are many ways to prevent this not least immunisation programmes and water purification programmes.  There are of course many challenges to delivering these solutions in practice including logistics and compliance.  In a recent report, scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras demonstrate the potential for a cheap affordable water filter system that can purify water of the most common bacteria and prevent thousands of bacteria related deaths.  It is estimated that such a device will cost $2.50 a year to run including the cost of the device and the running cost.

From the practical to perhaps the more academic end there is increasing interest in applying rigorous research methodologies to understand which development approaches are more likely to work in a particular context.  However issues arise when we transfer approaches from say the natural sciences to development which as an area has been more comfortable with social science methods.  The approaches are sometimes misunderstood or applied inappropriately leading to a pushback against scientific methods.  But here I think there is an opportunity for scientists with a strong understanding of research methods to play a role by communicating how these methods can be better used and supporting those that want to have more empirical basis for making decisions.

Other ways science impacts on development are by increasing the proportion of the population that are critical and questioning within a society and contributing to economic development by providing new knowledge which can generate new products.

4. What have you been up to recently?

I have been very busy getting a new and exciting project off the ground!  I mentioned earlier that I am Director of the VakaYiko consortium.  VakaYiko is a partnership of five organisations to build the skills needed to use research in Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In Ghana, we work with the Ghana Information Network for Knowledge Sharing (GINKS) to develop a course in Skills for Evidence Informed Policy Making.  In South Africa  the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the ODI work with ministries to systematise the sourcing and use of evidence and the Zimbabwe Evidence Informed Policy Network (ZEIPNET) works with departments to implement a professional development course for Civil Servants and start a series of public policy dialogues on the evidence around key policy issues.

I have just returned from visits to the partner organisations and was lucky enough to meet a range of policy makers to hear what they are already doing to improve the use of evidence.  I was amazed by the level of support for EIPM in South Africa and how much has been done in the last five years to systematically look at the evidence around social issues.  There is clearly a lot more to do but seeing the interest from senior policy makers in this area is really encouraging and exciting.

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?

There are many ways to be involved in development.  The work INASP does providing mentorship for early career researchers in developing countries via AuthorAid is one way to use your skills and knowledge to support development.  Have a look at the website and sign up as a mentor!

Apart from the plug, development is a wide area; it’s a bit like saying you are interested in science or art.  My suggestion is to start by trying to understand what it is about development that interests you.  Is it something specific like availability of clean water, or primary school education?  Is it something geographic like development in Peru? Or is it a combination of both, for example, education outcomes for children in India?

My interest in development started with wanting to support research output from Sub-Saharan Africa and from there grew to become an interest in the role of research in development more broadly.  It will almost certainly evolve again as I am exposed to more challenges.   But at the start it reflected where I am from, what I had experienced, what I did as a scientist and where I felt I could contribute something.  These may not be the same combinations for you but you should start by asking yourselves these why/where types of questions.

More generally, the skills you need as a scientist – critical thinking, a questioning nature, a desire to understand how and why things work are important skills that a have a place in development at all levels.  There are many ways to use these skills from straight forward research into development issues to measuring the impact of programmes or supporting others that want to develop those skills.

Whatever approach you take into development, remember that it will necessarily involve a job change so be prepared learn from others, work your way up and always try to remember why you moved in the first place.

6. Tell us something to make us smile?

If you haven’t seen the ‘No woman, no drive’ video, it combines comedy, a song I love and a serious message about the way women are viewed in society while making you smile.

Check out previous blogs in this series: 1, 2, 3 and 4.


3 thoughts on “Nerds without borders – Alex Ademokun

  1. Pingback: Nerds without borders! | kirstyevidence

  2. Pingback: Nerds without borders – Beth Scott | kirstyevidence

  3. Pingback: Nerds without borders – Justin Sandefur | kirstyevidence

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