Abdulrazak Ibrahim: Celebrating Nigerian Genetic Engineer
He completed his scientific education in Brazil before returning to Nigeria and help to develop biotechnology there.
Dr Ibrahim is the inventor and patent holder of an insect control technology for the control of whitefly in tropical crops using RNA interference, with patent deposited at the Brazilian Industrial Property Organization. He co-led a Research Project, under the Africa-Brazil program that led to the establishment of the first biobalistic facility in Northern Nigeria, 2012-2014.
Genetic engineering for tropical agriculture leading to the award of PhD molecular biology by Universidade de Brasilia, Brazil, in 2015.
Since the beginning of human history, African men and women have contributed to humanity and made unique discoveries in science and technology. However, there’s a long-held belief that Africa has made little or no meaningful contribution to the advancement of science and has not been instrumental to human progress. Today science, technology and innovation are more important than ever to the future of humanity and Africa’s scientific contribution is critical. A new crop of African scientists is emerging and taking back this poor narrative, bringing Africa to the centre of human progress through scientific innovations.
Abdulrazak Ibrahim is a very versatile, multi-functional and multilingual scientist, who is passionate about science, genetics, food security and new emerging technologies such as CRISPR. He understands that acquiring capacity at individual and institutional levels is pivotal to bringing about the much-needed transformative disruptions and evolution required for Africa to take advantage of science, technology and innovation to develop home-grown solutions to its developmental problems, using time-tested scientific standards and approaches. His mission is to contribute in deepening the application of science to strengthen human, institutional & systemic capacities by facilitating scientific literacy and competencies among stakeholders in the biotechnology landscape to sustainably improve health, food and nutrition security in Nigeria and beyond. His biography to a layman is akin to a “superhero”.
Growing up in Kura, Kano state, Nigeria, I attended Central Primary School Kura before moving to Arabic Junior Secondary School Kura. My first exposure to science was in my Junior Secondary school days when I joined the Science Club, having learnt basic science in JSS1. This was in Junior Arabic Secondary School in Kura, Kano, Nigeria.
Reading through books on integrated science, I knew I needed to understand the natural processes related to so many things I observed; germination of the wheat seed we used to plant in my father’s farm; why monkeys looked like humans; how vehicles moved and so on. At the same time, I was deeply fascinated by the literary works of Charles Dickens, whose Great Expectation and Tale of Cities greatly influenced my formative years in understanding the significance of words in explaining the natural world.
By the time I started to study biochemistry, I was absolutely amazed at how I was able to make the connection between literature and the language of life (DNA). After my secondary school education in Science Secondary School Kafin Hausa, I pursued a degree in Biochemistry in Bayero University Kano (BUK), from where I graduated with a second-class honours degree (2:1), as the best graduating student in the year 1999.
During my National Youths Service Corp (NYSC), I served as a classroom teacher of Chemistry in a public school in Abia State, Nigeria. The NYSC scheme was a great cultural lesson for me. My NYSC experience was marked by ethnic violence that broke up in Aba, as a reprisal to Kaduna killing of Christians/Igbos in 2000, which was inspired by the Sharia debate. That experience has shaped the way I view Nigeria and inspired my strong stand against tribalism and religious bigotry.
In 2002, I started working as the pioneer staff of the Jigawa Research Institute. While working with Jigawa state government as a research officer, I was sent for a short training in plant tissue culture and genetic transformation, which I received in the laboratory of Professor Francisco Campos, of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of the Federal University of Ceará, Fortaleza, Brazil. The training afforded me with the opportunity to, not only learn some basic techniques of plant biotechnology but also learn the Portuguese language.
With encouragement from Professor Campos, and following an examination, I was awarded a 24-month Brazilian fellowship for M.Sc. Biochemistry from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of the Federal University of Ceará, Fortaleza, Brazil while carrying out my research activities in Prof Campo’s laboratory. I returned to Nigeria in 2007 and took up an appointment as a lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. I later returned to Brazil, where I developed my PhD thesis at Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology’s Lab of Genetic Engineering Applied to Tropical Agriculture, with the researcher Francisco Aragão as an advisor.
The work resulted in a new methodology to produce insect pest-resistant plants based on RNA interference technology whose patent request was filed in 2016.
Who inspired me
A number of individuals inspired me in my professional trajectory.
The first was my junior secondary school teacher, Malam Ibrahim Adamu, whose encouragement and support motivated me to be the best in my class. From my teacher he transformed into a friend and a family.
However, Professor Funso Sonaiya of Obafemi Awolowo University, whom I first met in 2000, was the first to ignite the passion for science, technology and innovation in me. I met him at a national workshop to draw the first biotechnology agenda for the country, where I was the youngest participant. As the resource person during the workshop, he was the first to inspire me to pursue a career in biotechnology. Besides his technical erudition, the simplicity with which he carried himself left a lasting impression in my young mind, and I knew I wanted to be like him.
Later in life, I was highly inspired by the late Professor Calestous Juma, whose teachings and writings exposed me to understand what it truly means to be an African scientist.
Advice to Aspiring Scientists
Look at science as more than a body of knowledge, but as way of life and thinking; as a way of sceptically interrogating the universe, while being cognizant of your limitations as humans. This attitude is the way to the discovery of solutions to our problems and it is the reason why all advanced countries today are advanced. Because they invested in science and deepened its application in the way that they do things, those who lead in this revolution are the young.
Because humans are easily given to believing in conspiracy theories and wishful thinking, it is easy for us to make costly mistakes based on unfounded claims. If someone comes and says they have discovered the cure for AIDS or EBOLA, you need to be sceptical and use scientific methods to verify that claim. The young must learn critical thinking and scepticism if they were to have any meaningful future in the greater scheme of things.
With the coming of the 4th Industrial Revolution, where robots will be taking over human jobs, we need a strong scientific base in the form of highly educated and scientifically literate critical mass in Nigeria and Africa, to take our rightful position in the world. For me, it is a tragedy that the teaching of science in Africa and Nigeria in particular is characterised by the denial of the science itself, sometimes by the educators themselves. The result is that our global output in science, technology and patent is less than 1% as a whole.
We are counting on the new generation of scientists to change that; to refuse to accept the mediocre science but to learn and read any textbook, question and unpack the scientific knowledge to gain a deeper understanding and develop homegrown solutions to our problems in health, agriculture, industry and economy. Africa is the future destination of scientific exploration, with Nigeria playing a significant role. Our young must position themselves to be part of that great change.
This post has first been published on Science Communication Hub Nigeria.