October 13, 2022
Illumina and the Illumina Corporate Foundation have provided a grant to the Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF), a Bangladeshi nonprofit that promotes public health and STEM education. The grant, worth over $300,000, includes cash and in-kind product.
The grant will support CHRF’s Building Scientists for Bangladesh program, which will introduce young women in under-resourced communities around the country to science and provide hands-on genomic training for university students and early career professionals.
Bangladesh faces a multifaceted problem: Disease burden is high, and access and exposure to STEM education and the benefits and practice of science remain low. To complicate matters further, Bangladeshi universities are experiencing a significant decline in STEM enrollment, particularly among women. CHRF director Senjuti Saha, PhD, and her team hope to counteract this discouraging trend.
“We believe that everyone across the world should have equal access to the practice and benefits of science and that if more young women completing high school can see themselves as scientists addressing problems in their communities, they will be encouraged to pursue STEM,” says Saha, who is spearheading the education program. “To make science more relatable to their everyday lives—not limited to theories they read about in textbooks—our researchers will take science to high schools across the country, especially in rural communities, and perform easy-to-do experiments to engage students and teachers.”
CHRF has been working in Bangladesh since the 1980s because pediatric infections were causing far too many preventable deaths. The organization now has five laboratories and works with four hospitals in urban and rural communities, providing low-cost diagnostics, collaborating with local physicians, conducting research, and providing education.
“We envision a Bangladesh where there are zero deaths and disabilities in children due to preventable diseases,” Saha says. “To achieve this, we must build a generation of young people who aspire to be scientists and leaders in their local communities.”
Many Bangladeshi students, even those enrolled in formal STEM programs, lack access to hands-on training, let alone to advanced technology like next-generation sequencing. This has a ripple effect throughout the country, reducing the number of STEM graduates who can support a much-needed diagnostics infrastructure.
“We’re committed to empowering the next generation of scientists,” says Sharon Vidal, head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Illumina. “We aim to expand access to genomics through STEM education and genomic literacy, so the benefits of genomics can reach everyone, regardless of geography, economic status, or gender.”
Training Young Scientists
The grant is supporting CHRF’s multipronged approach to teaching young students about the life sciences and genomics. The organization is setting up six 2-day science camps at rural high schools, which they hope will reach 72 women. It’s also creating a dedicated genomics training center that will offer two-week sessions, giving students unique opportunities to prepare sequencing libraries, load sequencers, perform bioinformatic analyses, and discuss data-sharing ethics. CHRF will train five students each month and award merit-based scholarships.
The education program is already having an impact. Rupali, a high school student who donned a lab coat in one of CHRF’s Dhaka facilities, is now considering a STEM career. Lubaba, who used a microscope to examine bacteria from her hand, hopes to be an astronaut.
Both CHRF and Illumina want to inspire young Bangladeshi women to pursue STEM careers to improve their quality of life and build the intellectual foundation to fight infectious diseases. “We want to show students the possibilities that are out there for them,” says Saha. “I believe that everyone across the world should have equal access to the practice and benefits of science. And for that, we need to build local capacity, starting with young students who have never met a scientist, or have never seen the scientific equipment that we take for granted.”