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The knowledge to grow sustainably

The knowledge to grow sustainably

A Finnish microbial ecology expert visited the fast-growing nation of Myanmar to help the country develop urgently needed research for environmental controls under the Elsevier Foundation-TWAS Sustainability Visiting Expert Programme.

Myanmar is rapidly transforming. After nearly a century of economic stagnation and decades of authoritarianism that ended only a few years ago, the country is in a development push, including both political and economic reforms.

But that growth comes at an environmental cost that Myanmar is ill-equipped to handle. So microbial ecologist Merja Itävaara of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland travelled there earlier this year – with support from the Elsevier Foundation-TWAS Sustainability Visiting Expert Programme – to work with local experts to build the nation’s environmental sciences.

“In Myanmar, there is a great need for environmental education and especially environmental microbiology and ecotoxicity, which are lacking,” said Itävaara. “There is also needed basic education in microbiology, and lab courses to train the students.”

The Elsevier Foundation-TWAS programme provides institutions in developing countries with outside contacts that could lead to strong, long-term links with experts in sustainability science. Itävaara is one of six researchers sponsored in 2017 for such a visit by the programme, aiming to form connections that could lead to further collaborations between European researchers and those from Myanmar. The programme focuses on research for sustainability, as well, in an effort to help developing countries achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and thrive in a way that will last deep into the future.

Visiting experts are expected to interact closely with faculty and students at the host institution to strengthen their work and help open new lines of research. That research is complimented by lectures and seminars, and discussion of future collaborations, and conduct research themselves. Any qualified scientist working in sustainability science is encouraged to apply. The programme began in 2016.

“Locally relevant research is vital for solving local issues in specific communities,” said Elsevier Foundation Director Ylann Schemm. “International collaboration gives scientists access to resources beyond their own, enabling them to tap larger networks to tackle the challenges their countries face. Working with TWAS, the Elsevier Foundation aims to facilitate knowledge exchange, and support the growth of sustainability science.”

"With this programme, TWAS uses science to catalyze sustainable development," said TWAS Programme Coordinator Max Paoli. "A new mindset is required to truly embrace sustainability, so the educational component of the expert's visit is useful. It sharpens least-developed countries' ability to focus on local and global challenges."

Myanmar is one of the fastest developing countries in the world. The International Monetary Fund ranked it as having the second-highest growth levels from 2000 to 2016 – ranking only behind China, and driven mainly by agriculture, energy, mining, manufacturing and infrastructure projects.

But as a direct result of poorly regulated growth, agricultural pesticides and fertilizers are polluting waterways, making access to clean water more difficult. Illegal logging is driving deforestation and upsetting local ecosystems. Contaminants such as cyanide and heavy metals from Myanmar’s ruby and gold mines find their way into rivers, sending those toxic substances directly to local communities.

The country lacks strong environmental standards to control this pollution and its inevitable effects on people’s health.

“Locally, the problem is huge,” said Itävaara. “There’s no environmental research. But we know that the major issue here is to help link with European scientists.” 

Some international research projects are already under way in Myanmar to address these problems. Most are connected to the Mekong River – an important water source that runs from China through Myanmar and into Laos – and the Inle Lake area. For example, the lake absorbs a large amount of wastewater from surrounding villages where homes lack latrines.

But current research clearly is not enough. The country’s low education level, from childhood to university, has made it difficult for Myanmar to develop the expertise required to keep up with the growth, and environmental research of all kinds is needed to make sure that future growth is sustainable.

Itävaara said Burmese scientists are working hard to elevate the education level of students and young scientists there. “There are several professors who have studied outside Myanmar and have good scientific background and they want to raise the education level of their country eagerly,” said Itävaara.

And, she added: “To my astonishment, most of the professors are women.”

Teaching about desirable microbes

There was a natural match between Itävaara’s expertise and Myanmar's needs.

Her research is focused on how ecosystems function in relation to microbes – for example, how microbial life degrades once-living matter so that the life cycle can begin anew, and how pollutants in the environment can meddle with that process by killing those important microbes.

“I think Burmese scientists such as Dr. Nwe are working hard to raise the education level of students and young scientists in their country. The activity and interest of these people give me motivation to work for them.”–Merja Itävaara

Myanmar, on the other hand, lacks educational resources and laboratories in the fields of microbiology and ecotoxicity. Plus, there is a need for fundamental environmental research and policy making.

While in Myanmar on the Elsevier Foundation-TWAS exchange, Itävaara gave four lectures on environmental biotechnology and biodegradation. Her lectures even included discussion on how to write a grant proposal to secure funding,  a process that is not common knowledge among scholars in Myanmar.

She gave her lectures at Yangon University in Yangon, Myanmar, in classrooms with at least 50 attendees. Most were university students, though about seven to ten professors were present for each lecture, too.

Microbes clean the environment, she taught, and people and plants can’t exist without them. “Although some microbes are pathogens, most are beneficial and restrict spread of pathogens in the environment,” Itävaara explained.

“We need microbes to degrade harmful compounds so that they’re nontoxic,” she added, “and to degrade the dead biomass to carbon dioxide and water and transform different elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus to be available for the growth of plants.”

Links that could last

Itävaara has known her Burmese colleagues for years, and is trying to strengthen the ties between the research communities of Myanmar and Europe. She first went to Myanmar 10 years ago as a tourist, learning about the culture and ways of life of people there.

“Ten years ago there were no plastics or any Western type of hotels or restaurants,” she said. “Children were playing with stones, because there were no toys. The Western type of development has caused huge waste problems and the companies making money should take responsibility.”

Since then, she has repeatedly returned to Myanmar to help researchers with scientific development. This most recent visit was her third.

She discovered Burmese biotechnologist Nitar Nwe through LinkedIn. Nwe is a researcher at ALARM Ecological Laboratory – a nonprofit research unit which is performing socioeconomic and environmental research, mainly chemical analysis of industrial waste waters and also hosting some biotechnology research. She also teaches at several universities in Myanmar.

“I think Burmese scientists such as Dr. Nwe are working hard to raise the education level of students and young scientists in their country,” Itävaara said. “The activity and interest of these people give me motivation to work for them.”

During Itävaara’s visit, she met with The Department of Research and Innovation, Ministry of Education (DRI) and Yangon University officials, as well as the European Union office in Myanmar to talk over possibilities for funding research activities. Discussions on how to potentially fund a direct exchange programme between the EU and Myanmar are now under way.

Sean Treacy

About the Elsevier Foundation

The Elsevier Foundation is a corporate not-for-profit 501(c)(3), funded by Elsevier, a global information analytics business that helps institutions and professionals progress science, advance healthcare and improve performance for the benefit of humanity. The Elsevier Foundation provides over $1 million USD a year in grants to knowledge centered institutions around the world, which are addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals through innovations in health information, diversity in science and health, research in developing countries and technology for development. The Elsevier Foundation also provides a total of $200,000 in matching funds to charitable organizations supported by employees to encourage community involvement.

About TWAS

The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries – TWAS – supports sustainable prosperity through research, education, policy and diplomacy. TWAS was founded in 1983 by a distinguished group of scientists from the developing world, under the leadership of Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Today, TWAS has more than 1,200 elected Fellows from nearly 100 countries; 14 of them are Nobel laureates. The Academy is based in Trieste, Italy, on the campus of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). Through more than three decades, its mission has focused on supporting and promoting excellence in scientific research in the developing world and applying scientific and engineering research to address global challenges. TWAS receives core funding from the government of Italy and essential programmatic funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. (Sida). It is a programme unit of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).