April 2014 Lab-of-the-month - James Smith

One of the strengths of Edinburgh Infectious Diseases is the breadth interests of its members, from clinical and basic scientific research, to examining the social science impacts of infectious disease across the world.  For April 2014 our featured lab-of-the-month is James Smith’s "lab" in the Centre of African Studies based in the College of Humanities and Social Science.

About James and the research interests of his team

After graduating from the University of Dundee, James travelled to South Africa, eventually carrying out his PhD at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.  He continued in South Africa for some postdoctoral work before moving to Edinburgh in 2005, first as a research fellow in the ESRC Innogen Centre, and then as a lecturer in the Centre of African Studies where he has remained.  He is now Professor of African And Development Studies, and Director of the University of Edinburgh’s Global Development Academy.

James has published widely on the relationship between scientific research, technological innovation and international development. Much of his work has focused on sub-Saharan Africa (especially South Africa and Eastern Africa), and he is particularly interested in exploring global networks and the assemblages of technology, knowledge and values that shape development interventions.  He colloborates with many different researchers in Edinburgh, in particular working closely with Prof Sue Welburn in the Division of Pathway Medicine (Sue featured as our February Lab-of-the-Month!).  James is also involved in several large international projects, notably the DfID PISCES project, which is examining bioenergy security in East Africa and South Africa, and the ESRC Innogen Centre, which is exploring the social, political and economic implications of the new life sciences.

A large team of PhD students works with James ...

  • Adedamola Badejo (Neglected zoonoses and household health in Jos)
  • Kevin Bardosh (Livestock control and livelihoods in Africa)
  • Nadia Bemtgen (NTD global policy networks)
  • Hannah Cook (Microfinance and its impact in Malawi)
  • Shona Lee ('Big data' and global health in Africa)
  • Peta Freestone (TB vaccine partnerships) [Melbourne]
  • Vera Mugittu (Generating rural innovation in Tanzania)
  • Mabutho Shangase (State policymaking in South Africa)
  • Rebekah Thompson (Veterinary expertise and institutions in East Africa)
  • Simon Zappia (NTDs, borders and control in East Africa)

... keeping him very busy!  James is very grateful to Caroline Laffey, the grant administrator, and Elisabeth Barlow, the commincations officer, for helping to ensure that everything runs smoothly with the team.

Left to right:  Kevin Bardosh, Nadia Bemtgen, Hannah Cook, Shona Lee, Rebekah Thompson and Simon Zappia

Investigating Networks of Zoonosis Innovation

One of the major on-going projects in James’ "lab" is INZIINZI is a five-year project to explore how African trypanosomiasis (commonly known as sleeping sickness) has been researched, controlled and treated from the Second World War to the present day. It is based at the University of Edinburgh, and funded by the European Research Council. The project began in 2012 with the aim shedding light on how scientific knowledge can be generated to help alleviate poverty and drive development in Africa.  Emma Michelle Taylor and Pete Kingsley (right) are the postdocs currently working on the project, and they will shortly be joined by Jennifer Palmer, who will be arriving in Edinburgh in May 2014 from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 

The project was named in honour of the tsetse fly that spreads African trypanosomiasis, with the team borrowing the Swahili word for fly, 'inzi'.   The team explains that it stands for:

  • 'Investigating' - we are an interdisciplinary research project, exploring case studies - both historical and contemporary - across Africa.
  • 'Networks' - the local, national and transnational processes by which knowledge, technology, and resources circulate. This could be a multi-million pound research project pulling together expertise from across the globe, or a farmer in Uganda learning about a new kind of insecticide.
  • 'Zoonosis' - is any infectious disease that can spread between animals and humans - in our case, African trypanosomiasis.
  • 'Innovation' - technologies and knowledge developed to tackle African trypanosomiasis.

Photographs taken by the INZI team on recent trips to Africa (courtesy of Pete Kingsley).  L to R:  The Department of Veterinary Services, Nairobi; scientists studying tsetse flies bred in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; sleeping sickness admissions book from South Sudan.

Why African trypanosomiasis?

African trypanosomiasis is a neglected tropical disease. These are a group of diseases that cause significant illness and death in poor countries, but have received far less attention than diseases like HIV and malaria.  Developing better control and treatment methods for these diseases has recently become a major global health priority.

Additionally, African trypanosomiasis is a neglected zoonotic disease. Diseases that are transmitted between humans and animals often receive little consideration, in spite of their major impact on animal and human health.  Zoonotic diseases also raise significant problems for coordinating human health and veterinary research and control programmes.

As well as being under-resourced in terms of health care provision and scientific research, the cultural, geographical and political aspects of African trypanosomiasis are poorly understood.  Through the course of the INZI project the team aims to address this by analysing the complex interplay of the actors, policies and projects that have shaped how African trypanosomiasis is understood and controlled.

What questions are being investigated?

People have tried to control African trypanosomiasis in a bewildering variety of ways - from ambitious scientific projects to develop a vaccine that rely on new forms of financing and novel instructional structures, to local techniques for identifying sick cattle or trapping insects. Making sense of this range of activities raises important questions: 

  • How should we make sense of new forms of large-scale philanthropy? 
  • What are the consequences of public-private partnerships in drug development and health services? 
  • Why is it that some useful, low-tech ideas spread quickly across the world, whereas others remain obscure? 

By looking at African trypanosomiasis in an historical perspective, the team aims to trace the evolution of research institutions and technological innovation, as they interacted with, at first, colonial administrations, and later independent African governments.

Edinburgh Infectious Diseases and Global Health Academy Winter Lecture

We were delighted that James gave the inaugural Edinburgh Infectious Diseases and Global Health Academy Winter lecture last November in the august surroundings of the Playfair Library, Old College.  James gave a most enlightening talk about the challenges facing the control of neglected tropical diseases in he post-millennium development goal era.  

Read more about the event and watch a video of the lecture here

Recent Articles and Book Chapters 

  • Smith, J. and Taylor, E.M. (2014) NTDs and MDGs: Reshaping the global health agenda, PLoS Negl Trop Dis 7(12): e2529. 
  • Bompani, B. and Smith, J. (2013) Bananas and the bible: biotechnology, the Catholic Church and rural Development in Kenya, International Journal of Religion and Society.  
  • Taylor, M., Hayman, R., Crawford, F., Jeffery, P. and Smith, J. (2013) The Impact of Official Development Aid on Maternal and Reproductive Health Outcomes: A Systematic Review, PLOS ONE.
  • Wield, D., Hanlin, R., Mittra, J. and Smith, J. (2013) Twenty-first century bioeconomy: Global challenges of biological knowledge for health and agriculture, Science and Public Policy, 40(1), 17-24. 
  • More of James’ publications can be found at here

Other links for more information

Please tell us what you think about this website !

What do you think of the Edinburgh Infectious Diseases website?  We would be very grateful if you could spare 2 minutes to help us improve the useability and look of our pages. Thank you for your help !