Building Laboratory Capacity Abroad: Lessons Learned
In a globalized world, food-testing capacity can be attained through the development of proper facilities and expertise in developing countries, with specific needs met by collaboration with established entities in more developed countries. Our team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln specializes in testing food for molds and mycotoxins. Approximately six years ago, we partnered with Kansas State University, through the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss (PHLIL). This partnership enabled our team at UNL to collaborate in applied research, education and capacity building to improve food safety and security in stored crops in different countries. Countries where we have made a direct contribution to capacity building in the area of mycotoxin assessment include Guatemala, Nepal, and more recently Honduras, resulting in over 5,000 samples of different food commodities (maize, wheat, feed, chili, peanuts, etc.) analyzed.Rodrigo Mendoza [right], graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, training personnel from Nepal on mycotoxin testing of feed. Photo credit: Dena Bunnel
This capacity building requires the establishment of physical laboratories with the needed equipment, and the training of highly skilled personnel who can properly collect, handle, analyze and report findings of potentially contaminated food samples. Direct training of laboratory personnel in train-the-trainer sessions is an obvious need. Just as important for long-term success, however, is the development of adequate training material and standard procedures for sampling, mycotoxin testing, and the development of routine proficiency evaluation programs for the scientists who have been trained during this process. Locally managed proficiency evaluations are an essential component of a sustainable program. Based on our experience, and in attempt to be inclusive of other potential laboratory testing needs, we have compiled a 7-step guide to better approach the task of building laboratory capacity, both physical needs and staffing, in another country.
- Align purchases with your budget and project objectives. Projects have limited funds, so think wisely how to invest the budget and available resources. Sometimes expensive items that can be reused are preferable to lower-priced disposable alternatives. Consider the expected work-load. Will the new laboratory have one, two, three, …ten technicians? To what level must they be trained? How many samples are projected to be processed daily? Do not forget to consider infrastructure and big-ticket items that are essential but might not be readily available. For example: Is battery back-up needed to ensure continuous power for some equipment? Is sufficient quality distilled water available? Are freezers and other refrigerated units available, of suitable quality and reliable? Is the air handling – heating, cooling and air circulation – in the room where the lab will be located sufficient to manage the heat load generated by staff and equipment? If moving into or sharing a pre-existing laboratory, determine what is present and/or available long-term for your project.
- Explore local distributors prior to purchasing equipment. Almost anything can be purchased in the United States and Europe and then shipped in, but that isn’t a sustainable solution. Availability of consumables and technical support must be considered when deciding which equipment, system and manufacturer will be employed. Even though getting fast results and ease of use are extremely important features to consider when choosing detection systems, it is unfavorable for a project to acquire equipment that has no local suppliers to provide the necessary reagents or technical support (parts and repairs) in the longer term.
- Contact country/local government for shipping guidelines and restrictions. If purchases are made outside the country of interest, understanding donor policies and contacting local government agencies to become familiar with local import regulations is essential. Customs authorities may have different requirements such as letters of identification/description of shipment, payment of fees/taxes, special waivers, and detailed description of the final destination and purpose of the items.
- Picture yourself working in the lab. Doing so will enable you to double-check items you might have forgotten initially. If the lab tests to be conducted are not your expertise, consult with colleagues. If these tests are your area of expertise, do a walkthrough of your own lab to identify items not included in your original list of required equipment and supplies. Ask personnel working in your lab to go through a typical day and to make a list of every item or reagent that they touch, and then be sure all of these items are on the list to be purchased.
- Done with purchases? Inventory, inventory, inventory. This process can be laborious, but it is much easier to keep track of inventory from when it arrives, rather than trying to reconstruct it in the middle or final phases of the project. Keep separate lists of items that are acquired locally and those purchased from outside the country. Make sure what is received matches what was ordered in terms of particular items and quantities. A detailed inventory and receipts for purchases will be needed when completing financial reports on expended funds and prioritizing additional consumables or other pieces of (small) equipment to purchase as the project progresses.
- In-person training and development of SOPs, labeling and signage. Establishing a working physical laboratory is only the beginning of the capacity development process. A state-of-the-art laboratory is inoperable if its personnel are not properly trained, or worse it may produce misleading results. Multiple in-person training sessions where demonstrations are done, followed by hands-on practices are essential. During these sessions, include time for discussions of the identification of key in-country roles for trained individuals and in-country needs (e.g., portfolio of analysis of interest). Additionally, these trained sessions should be used to distribute Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and recordkeeping forms. The format for proficiency programs and continued training for laboratory personnel needs to be jointly developed with the local staff. When the time comes for trained trainers to train others, e.g., in-country training, all materials, SOPs, and record forms should be available in the country’s official language. The more details and pictures included in these materials, the smaller the chance of misunderstanding. Additionally, because some of these newly established laboratories are housed in a pre-existing area, e.g., a university space or a shared research area, proper labeling of all items, e.g., standards, equipment and reagents, and a robust training system that is implemented from day one is essential to avoid future issues.
- Continued partnership and sustainability. Once equipment is in place and functional and lab personnel are fully trained and proficient, the real work begins. Capacity has been developed! All the effort put into the capacity development process culminate in the laboratory’s ability to receive and analyze samples on a day-to-day basis. As these day-to-day activities begin and mature, a close relationship among local lab technicians, managers, and the domestic and international scientists leading the lab is essential. This partnership is indispensable for answering unforeseen questions, resolving potential problems, and providing appropriate oversight of results generated and their analysis. Beyond this initial phase, a long-term collaborative relationship is always beneficial as it keeps local scientists involved with the international scientific network and ensures that international researchers and their institutions are apprised of the results generated in-country.
Personnel training on mold identification at the National Autonomous University of Honduras [UNAH]. Photo credits: Dena Bunnel
While projects have specific timelines, it is important not to rush capacity building and to be as thorough as time and budget allow to achieve the initial project goals. Understand that problems will occur in the process, and may need local attention to be addressed in an appropriate context. Be flexible, patient, resourceful and work with what you have or is available, while keeping in sight the targeted goals and outcomes. With patience, persistence and partnership, the newly established in-country laboratory will provide evidence-based data for the national system to address agricultural challenges within and well beyond the life of the project.
For their commitment and collaboration, we would like to thank other researchers that are part of our team at UNL Dr. Luis Sabillón, Cody Brown and Donna Morrison, as well as KSU key collaborators Dr. John Leslie and Dr. Jagger Harvey.