Christopher Cullis has a long memory. A professor who’s been at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio for the last 21 years, he hasn’t forgotten that some of his years of higher education came at the expense of a government scholarship in Africa, where he was raised. Ever since, he’s been finding ways large and small to give back to the people of Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, and more.
The latest in an ongoing program he’s headed up since the early ’90s came in the form of a Fulbright scholarship. The award enabled Cullis to go to South Africa for seven months and spend the time assisting in genomics and molecular biology research, helping run courses, and developing curricula for genomics education programs. He ran introductory classes at the University of Namibia and the University of Limpopo, and in research tried to help his fellow scientists track down genetic markers for cowpea, an important crop in Namibia.
The classes attract everyone from current graduate students to established faculty, Cullis says. “Many of the places are well equipped,” he says of the labs and research institutes he saw. “They can do everything they need to do. They just don’t have the expertise or the number of people to implement those strategies.” Part of the hope is to get students in South Africa up to speed with their peers in other countries so that they can truly advance in their research.
Cullis, who often spends two-week periods in South Africa to teach introductory-level classes at the University of Pretoria, says being there for a full seven months was essential to troubleshooting research problems and really helping scientists get on track. He gives the example of a student who had learned a particular protocol during her studies at a European lab, but when she came back to South Africa and tried running the same protocol it continually failed. As it turned out, the European lab’s reagent was slightly different from the one used in the South African lab, and that was causing the problem. “It’s those kinds of disconnects that are really difficult to work on” when you’re not there in person, Cullis says. One of his goals was to set up a mentoring component, in addition to the training program, so scientists keep in touch with him and each other. “It’s very much a training-the-trainers exercise,” he says.
Cullis, who was raised in Zimbabwe, came to Case from the John Innes Institute in England. His career of more than three decades has been focused on “DNA and markers and variation” with a specific target of flax, which can have an unusual inheritance pattern. “If you grow it under different environmental conditions, it actually changes genetically,” Cullis says.