Central Asia Genomics Symposium
On-site attendees of the First Central Asia Genomics Symposium (CAGS 2021) at the National University of Uzbekistan. (Credit: Jakhongir Alimov)

Creating New Opportunities for Genomics in Central Asia

science fellowships higher education institutions genomics South and Central Asia
https://doi.org/10.1126/scidip.adl4677

Higher education institutions play an important role in the relatively young diplomatic relations between the United States and central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).1 I witnessed this firsthand in my experience as a grantee of UniCEN (Central Asia University Partnerships Program). Funded by the Embassy of the United States in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and administered by the U.S.-based nonprofit American Councils for International Education,2 this program aims to create engagement and partnerships between institutions of higher education in the United States and Central Asia. Initially, my UniCEN proposal was conceived for working with Uzbekistan, as it has made significant strides in genomics research related to plant and agricultural sciences but lags behind in human genomics and related fields. Using the existing capacity in plant genomics would boost life/medical sciences in the same techniques. However, meaningful interdisciplinary interactions on specific topics are often limited. Moreover, genomics and bioinformatics may be seen as “elitist” fields of science worldwide, due to the high cost of experiments and, in countries that lag behind in science, to a smaller number of facilities and an overall deficit in associated skills (owing to a lack of human capital, outdated university curricula, and other factors). Notably, genomics research has the potential to impact agriculture, biotechnology, biodiversity, and precision medicine, among other essential areas for human development.

As a biomedical scientist in academia, I experience international mobility thanks to the universality of science. This has heightened my fascination with the idea that knowledge creation is a global asset and sparked my interest in science diplomacy. My passion for bridging countries through science was one of my motivations to apply to the UniCEN funding scheme with a project to create new opportunities for research using genomics and bioinformatics3 not just in Uzbekistan, but in all Central Asia.  

As a biomedical scientist in academia, I experience international mobility thanks to the universality of science. This has heightened my fascination with the idea that knowledge creation is a global asset and sparked my interest in science diplomacy.

The model of international collaboration developed for this project4 focuses on and has impact at different levels, from individuals to universities to national and regional networks. Specifically, the activities included a graduate student exchange, webinars,5 a hands-on bioinformatics workshop,6 and a two-day multidisciplinary symposium.7 Due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the student exchange was done in virtual mode, including online training courses, while the symposium was held in hybrid mode (in person at the National University of Uzbekistan and online for participants from the rest of Central Asia8. The high attendance confirmed that the First Central Asia Genomics Symposium was needed (a summary is presented in the endnotes).9 The project explicitly considered inclusivity and equity, supporting mostly early and mid-career researchers from the region. As a minority, diaspora, and early-career scientist, I conceptualized the project from my own experience; this shows the importance of expanding eligibility criteria and opening funding opportunities to younger researchers.

 

Key actors

Supporting institutions play a key role in meaningful scientific partnerships like this project. First, the funding and commitment to support science and education from the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent were pivotal to the project’s realization. The guidance on cultural nuances and educational system from the American Councils was instrumental in facilitating the partnership. The American Councils also provided unanticipated logistics support, such as helping navigate payment methods. Also, with offices across Central Asia, they regularly interact with researchers from the region, supporting the continuity of the research and educational networks.

The collaboration model I developed through this project is replicable and customizable, and the outcomes are measurable. I hope it encourages other embassies to incorporate academia into their agendas for bilateral relations, and scientists to see the materialization of diplomacy-supported partnerships as it is a sustainable collaboration model for both sides. This project serves as a success story of science for diplomacy and diplomacy for science, offering a replicable model applicable in other contexts.

 

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to acknowledge Dilfuza Egamberdieva, Jakhongir Alimov, and Abdullokh Abdurakhmon for their invaluable support and commitment on site in Tashkent. Special thanks are extended to all the scientists who generously contributed to making the symposium and workshop a reality. A list can be found on the website www.centralasiagenomics.com.

 

Endnotes

  1. United States Department of State, United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity (Overview), https://www.state.gov/united-states-strategy-for-central-asia-2019-2025-advancing-sovereignty-and-economic-prosperity; United States Department of State, C5+1 Diplomatic Platform, February 27, 2023, https://www.state.gov/c51-diplomatic-platform.
  2. American Councils for International Education, Central Asia University Partnerships Program (UniCEN), https://www.americancouncils.org/programs/central-asia-university-partnerships-program-unicen.
  3. Genomics is the multidisciplinary study of the genome (all of the DNA in an organism). It can involve studying gene function, editing, structure, sequencing, or evolution, among other areas. Bioinformatics is an intersectional field that creates and/or uses computational methods to understand the biology of an organism, usually involving complex and large data.
  4. This project was established between the University of California, Davis and the National University of Uzbekistan (NUU) with Dilfuza Egamberdieva as the partner in Central Asia.
  5. Invited speakers were encouraged to commit to be available for any future inquiries from Central Asian researchers after the webinar, highlighting the collaborative setting of this platform.
  6. Central Asia Genomics, Bioinformatics and Genomics Workshop announced for National University of Uzbekistan, https://www.centralasiagenomics.com/home/workshop. This was a two-day virtual Bioinformatics for Genomics workshop for 20 early-career researchers.
  7. Central Asia Genomics Symposium, November 8, 2021, https://unicen.americancouncils.org/central-asia-genomics-symposium-december-9-10-2021. With speakers from around the world, the first day of the symposium was held in English and the second in Russian—a common language for Central Asia. This key to inclusivity was necessary due to the global lack of opportunities for non-English-speaking scientists. Most Central Asian scientists preferred to present in Russian. Additionally, an online community was established with an app (mobile and desktop) and on Telegram to facilitate interactions among speakers and participants, creating virtual fora that remained open after the symposium.
  8. The First Central Asia Genomics Symposium had opening remarks from the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent.
  9. The event attracted over 330 registrants from Central Asia and beyond (20+ countries), including 70 on-site attendees. Participants had access to 40 talks from speakers from 18 countries, more than half of whom were early-career researchers. From 100 abstracts received, presenters from Central Asia were able to share their science through posters and oral presentations. The attendees represented multiple disciplines such as human and animal health, agriculture, microbiology, and marine biology. Six awards with a monetary prize were given in different categories to early-career researchers from Central Asia.
Capacity Building and Development Diplomacy for Science Relationship Building