They are specialists in cancer, renewable energy, genetics, nanotechnology, neuroscience, computer science, wildlife conservation biology, and other fields vital for development. They come from countries as far-flung as Argentina and Iraq, Malaysia and Ghana, Benin and Chile. They are all young – despite impressive curricula with dozens of published articles and scientific awards. Moreover, they all face a similar challenge: working in the developing world, they search for solutions that not only can change their countries but also respond to global issues, often doing complex research with limited resources and infrastructure.
The answer to this challenge involves creativity, perseverance and strong team work. Connecting peers to establish fruitful and long-lasting partnerships is the heart of the new TWAS Young Affiliates Network (TYAN), which recently concluded its first international conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nearly 60 TWAS Young Affiliates attended the meeting, representing 31 countries from Latin America, Africa, Asia and Middle East.
“It is a great pleasure to see all these people here, coming from all kinds of developing countries, getting to blend together, starting collaborations and also demonstrating that the rationality of science goes beyond frontiers," said Luiz Davidovich, TWAS Fellow and president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (BAS), at the opening ceremony.
According to Yin Li, chair of TYAN and director of the CAS-TWAS Centre of Excellence for Biotechnology in Beijing, the new network has the potential to help a generation of young TWAS scientists to maximize their creativity – and impact – in addressing global challenges. "We are elected in a time of our career where we can bring valuable energy and perspective to the developing world," Li said.
TYAN members have already started building networks and working together: to date, more than 80 Young Affiliates have been connected through TYAN online platform, initiating discussions and research that could advance scientific breakthroughs and contribute to development in the South. “We must build a world connected by scientific cooperation," said Li, who also serves as deputy director-general at the Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology. "This is the vision of TYAN.”
TWAS elected its first group of Young Affiliates in 2007. Each year, it selects up to five researchers under the age of 40 from each of the Academy's five regions: Latin America and the Caribbean, East and South-East Asia and the Pacific, the Arab countries, Central and South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. They then become affiliated members of TWAS for five years, participating in the Academy’s General Meeting and other events. Following the five-year term, they become Young Affiliate Alumni.
TYAN was created in 2016 with support from Lenovo, the global tech and computing leader, to connect the nearly 250 affiliates and alumni already admitted by TWAS. An executive committee was set to plan the new network’s modus operandi and decided the best way to start was to get Young Affiliates to know one another. That was the purpose of the Rio conference, where each participant presented his or her scientific work in oral and poster sessions.
Every sportsman needs to warm up – and scientific collaborations also need to start from somewhere. During the meeting in Rio, held 22-24 August, TYAN members had the opportunity to gather around common interests and needs and to begin discussing future collaborations. Three themed workshops discussed the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals; the role of TWAS’s regional offices on promoting science around the globe; and concrete cooperation opportunities that could arise from the meeting.
To meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) requires commitment from all levels of society. Education emerged as a key area to build on. “It is important for us to play a role in educating the general community about these goals and the roles we can play, starting from primary school levels to universities,” said Sok Ching Cheong, co-chair of TYAN and senior group leader from Cancer Research Malaysia.
Another important goal set by and for the young scientists was to improve communication with policymakers and industries. "Whilst we may have the data, a lot of things can only change if we are able to influence the political leaders," Cheong added. A key would be having regular contact with them and knowing how to effectively convey important information.
Participants suggested TYAN could play an important role in preparing Young Affiliates to communicate with politicians, industries and the public. Another suggestion was to set a mentoring program, where most experienced TWAS fellows could guide their younger colleagues through the pathways of an academic career. Others proposed that Young Affiliates can act as local ambassadors to the visibility of their group, and of TWAS, by advertising opportunities and activities carried out by both organisations.
TYAN’s international conference also included high-level invited speakers like Davidovich. Participants were welcomed by Vivaldo Moura-Neto, coordinator of the TWAS Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (TWAS-ROLAC); and Manuel Limonta-Vidal, a TWAS vice-president and coordinator of the International Council for Science Regional Office for Latin America & the Caribbean (ICSU-ROLAC). Oscar Reyes, communications officer for ICSU-ROLAC, made a presentation on how stronger international science can benefit society.
On the last day of the conference, a special session debated the importance of science communication and diplomacy. Maria Augusta Arruda, from the University of Nottingham (UK) and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Brazil, spoke about the importance of effective communication in everyday science activities. “Every scientist is a diplomat,” she said, highlighting researchers' work globally and thus the need to rely on strong diplomatic skills. Following Arruda’s presentation, Davidovich talked about how science can contribute to global challenges and promote peace.
During the meeting, TYAN members were joined by Young Affiliates from the Brazilian Academy, who also presented their research and participated in the workshops. "Having BAS Young Affiliates here was one of the highlights of the meeting," said Patricia Zancan, Brazilian pharmacist and cancer researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and co-chair of the TYAN meeting. Cheong agrees: "Together, the two groups really had chemistry in order to generate some concrete collaborations."
A big mission to accomplish
By the end of the meeting, both the participants and the executive committee were very happy with the results. “The showcasing of research was outstanding, both in its quality and in its diversity,” said Max Paoli, TWAS's programme coordinator. Now TYAN will face an even bigger task: to transform the inputs from the events into concrete action. “We need to nurture these ideas and make sure they will become concrete multilateral collaborations,” added Li.
After this short yet fruitful meeting in Rio, one can definitely say TYAN is not modest when setting goals for the years ahead. Young Affiliates want to increase representation from the 47 Least Developed Countries, promote gender equality in science, foster South-South and North-South cooperation, empower young scientists to become leaders of the next generation, tackle crucial global problems – and the list is much longer. But then, it is characteristic of young people to dream big.
“We have the energy to change things,” says Zancan. Science has much to benefit from it.