What is ACE?
WHAT IS ACE?
The African Centers of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Data Intensive Sciences (ACE) are a consortium of research and training centers facilitated by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in collaboration with research institutions, African governments, private sector companies, and the Foundation for the NIH (FNIH). ACE delivers and maintains high performance computing infrastructure, distance learning facilities, and training to collaborating research and academic institutions through a public-private partnership based on in-kind contributions. NIAID has extensive experience supporting global research institutions in infrastructure challenged regions. In the early 2000’s, collaborative centers called the International Centers for Excellence in Research (ICERs) were established in Mali and Uganda to conduct clinical research in malaria, as well as HIV and other emerging and re-emerging pathogens. The ICERs provide researchers working with NIH scientists with mentoring, compute resources, and the laboratory tools necessary for modern biomedical research. The proven success of the ICER program is the foundation for the public-private partnership that led to the establishment of the ACE centers.
ESTABLISHING THE FIRST CENTER
In 2009, the NIAID Office of Cyberinfrastructure and Computational Biology (OCICB) was one of the founding partners for the African Society for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (ASBCB). For several years after the inaugural meeting in Bamako, Mali, NIAID worked with various partners to deliver training workshops to students and researchers in different locations on the African continent. One consistent point of feedback from workshop attendees was that they could not continue accessing the tools and platforms to maintain their computational skills after the workshops ended. Meanwhile, the NIH Common Fund and the Wellcome Trust initiative, Human Health and Heredity in Africa, (H3 Africa) had reached similar conclusions and sponsored H3ABioNet to develop graduate curricula in bioinformatics. Their international working group developed a framework for specific modules and topics that would comprise a Master’s in Bioinformatics for African institutes of higher education. One of the first institutes to adopt this curriculum was the University of Science, Technology, and Techniques in Bamako (USTTB). The graduate program at the University in Bamako launched in 2014 at the same time that NIAID established a public-private-partnership with the USTTB, Intel, BioTeam, EMC, and the Foundation for the NIH to build the first African Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics in Mali.
BRINGING ACE TO UGANDA
In addition to the site in Mali, the NIAID ICER program included a program in Uganda that provided an opportunity to continue expanding the ACE initiative. On March 21, 2019, a new collaboration with the FNIH, the Infectious Diseases Institute of Uganda (IDI), Makerere University, and the Research and Education Network of Uganda (RENU), launched the second ACE. Located inside IDI’s McKinnell Knowledge Center on the campus of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, ACE Uganda will serve as a regional bioinformatics resource for high performance computing and training for collaborating research and academic institutions in East Africa. This academic year, Makerere University will start its own master’s and Ph.D. programs in bioinformatics aimed at creating successful post-graduate opportunities. The programs will leverage the ACE infrastructure and facilities, including a dedicated telelearning-capable classroom, a visualization lab featuring virtual reality-based training, collaborative space for consultation and project planning, and significant compute and storage IT infrastructure.
HOW ARE THE ACE CENTERS GOVERNED?
To set priorities for current and future ACE centers, NIAID established a governance and management structure. The ACE governance framework includes the ACE Global Council, the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC), and the Global Operations Team. Each group is responsible for ensuring that ACE activities tie back to their defined objectives and that all ACE programming is implemented in the spirit of collaboration.
On March 22, 2019, the ACE Global Council held their first meeting to discuss expanding training, facilitating post-graduate opportunities, and expanding service center offerings. The council is made up of Council Chair Dr. David Serwadda, Rakai Health Services Program; Dr. Jennifer Schopf, Indiana University; Dr. Abdoulaye Djimde, the University of Science, Technology, and Techniques of Bamako; Dr. Jeffrey Shaffer, Tulane University; Dr. Andrew Kambugu, the Infectious Diseases Institute; Dr. Alia Benkahla, Pasteur Institute Tunisia; and Dr. Jessica Kissinger of the University of Georgia. Non-voting members from the NIAID include Mr. Michael Tartakovsky, Dr. Darrell Hurt, and Mr. Christopher Whalen.
ENGAGING WITH H3 AFRICA
ACE and H3 Africa share a common goal of training students and scientists and nurture scientific collaborations among international and African researchers to improve global health. Through training grants provided by the Wellcome Trust, the Fogarty International Center, and the NIH Common Fund - H3 Africa has been instrumental in establishing bioinformatics graduate programs at the USTTB and Makerere University. The ACE program has worked with these academic partners to develop short courses, seminars, workshops, and specialized content on a variety of bioinformatics topics using the H3 Africa standardized curriculum as a framework.
Our stakeholders – including faculty, students, and researchers, some of whom are H3 Africa fellows – have benefitted greatly from the combined resources of H3 Africa and ACE. They have used these platforms as a catalyst to pursue post-secondary training and career opportunities, and to further their research through additional grants and fellowships. To date, two cohorts of students have completed the bioinformatics graduate program at the USTTB, with a third well on the way to matriculation in 2020. Nearly $7 million in grant funding has been awarded to USTTB since the installation of the ACE center. ACE Uganda has seen some early outputs as well, including the awarding of a small grant for hosting a workshop on viral bioinformatics. The workshop will be held in collaboration with the MRC-University of Glasgow. BRecA, the first bioinformatics graduate program in Uganda, was made possible with a training grant and the H3 curriculum. The program was announced at the ACE Uganda opening and will welcome its first cohort of students in September.
THE PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP MODEL
NIAID works in collaboration with the FNIH, a non-profit organization who engages with public and private partners to gather resources for ACE. Past and current partners and donors include: the University of Science, Technology, and Techniques of Bamako; Intel Corporation; BioTeam; Dell/EMC Corporation; Enduvo; RENU; Makerere University; and the Infectious Diseases Institute. The nature of the investments by each partner are varied and each partner provides different levels of support to the ACE program.
To learn more about ACE, visit https://ace.niaid.nih.gov. The website includes training resources from courses and workshops taught in the ACE telelearning centers and a curated calendar of events with entries focused on events at our partner institutions.
Collectively, as a public-private partnership and research consortium, ACE has developed an innovative organizational model for supporting access to bioinformatics tools and for building research capacity in Africa. The outcomes and successes from the center in Mali would not have been possible without our public and private partners. We are thankful for the support we have already received for ACE Uganda and look forward to engaging new partners as we embark on this new phase of the ACE journey.