Presenting RIBB research journey to European Collaborators

Report bySuvechhya Bastola

Acknowledging the fact “In-person interactions are key for building and maintaining research relationships”, a three-week Europe trip for two “Institute representatives”, covering 5 countries and 11 research institutes/organizations was initiated by the Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology (RIBB). As anticipated, we were able to have a first-hand experience of the outcomes as it helped to build rapport and trust much more efficiently as opposed to electronic communications. However, this arrangement of aligning multiple institutes together and extending the number of travels between countries was definitely not easy; logistically as well as financially. Thus the statement “Rome was not built in a day” holds true to the Institute’s present achievements.

RIBB was founded in the year 2011 with the mission to advance the fields of bioscience, engineering, innovation, and education by collaborating with academic and other research organizations. In these years of organizational journey, RIBB went through various peaks and valleys; establishing itself as one of the leading non-profit research organizations in the field of biotechnology as it conducts high-quality research forming an integrated part of the academia in Nepal. Recently on the 4th of July 2021, RIBB reached its milestone of completing 10 years in the field of research, not merely surviving but thriving; which is a huge achievement, especially in the resource-constrained setting of Nepal. This milestone called for a celebration, not just like any other anniversary; but to be celebrated as a year-long event incorporated within various formal and informal events throughout the year July 2021 – June 2022. We started off by celebrating the anniversary day (July 2021); Retreat to Phulbari Homestay (September 2021) Beer (Bullgatt) brewing event (October 2021); The fourth edition of the International Conference on Bioscience and Biotechnology (ICBB), entitled ‘A decade in research: Celebrating RIBB’s 10th anniversary’ (March 2022) to name a few.
To wrap up this beautiful celebration of 10 years worth of hard work and achievements, a trip abroad was envisioned. This would be a perfect opportunity to thank the institute’s donors, collaborators, and well-wishers who had walked with us throughout the journey and also to seek new directions and collaborations to take the institute forward. The outcomes of the last 10 years would be showcased to our funders, collaborators, and Nepalese communities of well-wishers living abroad as a talk “More than a decade of research in Nepal: A RIBB perspective”. Apart from celebrating our milestone of 10 years, it was a great opportunity to re-energize ourselves following two years of uncertainties, suffering, and isolation as an Institute; due to Covid-19. It was even more so for our institute as we always believe in working together and also depend on organizations and suppliers outside of our country for our supplies. By the mid of 2022, the panic and restraints of Covid-19 were almost over, which was a perfect time to reconnect with existing collaborators and to seek new collaborations in Europe, where a big part of our connections have been built in the last decade. We would also showcase how giving back to the community had always been our motto and we have been able to achieve it via public engagement through “Engage Nepal with Science (ENwS)” which has become an integral part of the Institute. Reaching 10 years is surely a milestone but it is also a starting point to achieve new heights and a promise to all concerned that the coming years will be productive and rewarding. These were not just promises but well-envisioned plans for the upcoming five years that would be proposed for discussions with all our stakeholders during our visits.

After a long preparatory phase, two highly motivated institutional representatives, Prajwal Rajbhandari (President, RIBB) and myself as Public Engagement Manager, RIBB finally started our journey on the 9th of September 2022. Our first stop was in Germany at the Institute of Clinical Microbiology, Immunology, and Hygiene at Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen. We had a well-stimulated scientific discussion in the areas of infectious diseases in presence of institute director Prof. Christian Bogdan. Our second country hosting three talks was Finland. We visited the Department of Food and Nutrition at the University of Helsinki; Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) and Non-Residential Nepalese Association, Finland. Among these three, FIMM has been our long-term collaborator and well-wisher, where we were greeted warmly, with arrangements of multiple private meetings including one with the Director of FIMM, Prof. Mark Daly. With the other two, we were looking for common grounds to start collaborations. All three talks were rejuvenating, including productive discussions with the Institution Director, Group Leaders, and researchers. From Finland, we headed towards our third country Denmark where we visited the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, at the University of Copenhagen, with whom we had recently initiated collaborations in the sector of Plant Biochemistry which we were planning on taking forward. While in Denmark, we also visited Arla foods in Aarhus, where we got a good insight into sustainable food innovation and a “not so formal” but functional working environment. Further our well-scheduled voyage took us to our fourth country, Italy, where one of our long-time funders and probable collaborators was awaiting. Our first stop in Trieste, Italy was our old funder TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences), wherein the presence of TWAS Executive Director Prof. Romain Murenzi and Program Coordinator Dr. Max Paoli we were able to give our talks and also an opportunity to discuss important points on problems Nepalese scientists/researchers face during the grant procedures. Our second stop in Trieste was the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) where we showcased the journey of RIBB in the presence of Center Director General Dr. Lawrence Banks with optimistic discussions on future probable collaborations on capacity building and outreach. At the end of the ICGEB visit, we had reached our final weekend before finishing our three-week tour. To make the most out of the available time we headed toward Switzerland for the weekend. We had an opportunity to travel through the longest and deepest train tunnel, Gotthard Base Tunnel running under the Swiss Alps. It was surely a memorable moment and we experienced a sense of achievement when it was announced on the train. We enjoyed the beautiful city of Zurich, a short hike to Uetliberg (the Top of Zurich), and a weekend full of fun with friends during our stay in Switzerland. From Switzerland, our trip made a full circle as we came back to Germany for our last three institutional visits. We had the opportunity to present in two different seminar series organized at Eberhard Karl University of Tübingen, Tübingen; and Jacobs University, Bremen. We were also able to get a tour of the German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures (DSMZ), Braunschweig which was very essential for establishing RIBB’s new center “RIBB Culture Collection (RI-C)”. For this visit to three institutes, we had to make a full circle of Germany starting from the south (Tübingen) to the north and back to Munich within 48 hours. Our last stop in Munich was for us to enjoy a proper German night out in the Oktoberfest – 2022. Our travel itinerary for these 48 hours was an amazement, even for the people living in Germany. This was not possible even by flight, and we were able to pull it together including multiple transfers between RE (Regional) and ICE (InterCity Express). Thanks to the rail transport system (DB) in Germany.
Each of the organizations we visited were outstanding hosts as we were warmly welcomed and were provided with an excellent platform for productive communications and interactions. Given that we were representing a private research institute from a developing world and visiting some of the topnotch European research institutes, this was more than what we could ask for. We are grateful that our presence was acknowledged and appreciated in each institute we visited.

This summarizes our busy but productive official international trip. However, it becomes necessary to mention that this was not the first time that our Institute had arranged such International trips and visits. Some of the previous Euro Trips were organized in 2014, 2018 and 2019. Having said that, it was also certain that the trip this time stood out from our previous official trips. There were a number of reasons that made this tour different, one of them being the maturity as an Institute over the years. Previously, we only approached and met with our direct connections, like the individual Professor, Group Leader or a particular department of an institution, as we were focusing on kick-starting collaborations. Whereas, now we were able to organize a seminar where the institute Directors, Group Leaders, Lab members (PhD student and Post-doc) from the hosting organization/institute were present to hear our stories. This definitely broadened our audiences and thus possibilities. Furthermore, unlike our previous visits where we met to discuss probable collaborations, this time we were able to present our stories of research & outreach which helped our audiences to understand and connect with us more effectively. These better connections will certainly give pronounced outcomes that are not something which is seen instantly at present but will materialize slowly with time and will be more profound in the works of the institute in the upcoming years. Some of the sectors where we are definitely seeing advancement are the opportunities for research and training for students and researchers of our Institute. Likewise, we are looking forward to numerous projects and funding opportunities to upgrade our existing departments at RIBB. Exchange programs for PhD students and researchers are also something we are excited about. With all these immense possibilities and opportunities, I think we were able to justify the effort made by our institute on programming this grueling trip.
Like any other such extended travels, ours was also not different in attracting some chaos, mishaps and a lot of fun. Looking back now I am amazed how we were able to pull this all together in that limited time frame. We were always in a hurry, either about to miss a train, bus or plane and/or repetitively challenged to be on time for our talks. It was definitely not a piece of cake, as we were not only dealing with time constraints but also a new language and culture at each stop. These challenges were something that kept pushing and motivating us and helped us enjoy each talk and seminar differently. We would also like to remember and appreciate the service of FlixBus, who were almost like our travel partner, as they were the ones we used most of the time for inter City as well as Inter Country traveling. They definitely helped us save time as well as money providing comfortable traveling each time.
Something that made these three weeks in a completely foreign land more close to home was the fact that at the end of each fruitful yet tiring day, we were hosted by a Nepali family. Most of our hosts were our friends from undergraduate days, which helped us relive our younger days and were reminded why in the first place this journey of RIBB had started. Some of our friends even traveled all the way from France and the USA just so that they could catch up with us at one of our various stops. These gestures and efforts made by our friends, juniors and well wishers were impeccable. All the friends’ reunion adjusted in between official visits and during weekends helped us get the most of our times, whether it be sightseeing or partying or just gathering our energies back for the next visit. Therefore, all this would not have been possible without the constant support and the back up from our supporters, which were the reason behind our confidence and belief in the first place that “This trip is possible”. Each and every one of you have been amazing and we cannot thank you enough for all the care and assistance.
Appreciating all our hosting Institutes, organizations and families we flew back to Kathmandu on the 29th of September. We were definitely tired but much more motivated and excited to share our experience with our friends, families and colleagues. The timing of our homecoming was even more perfect, as everyone was already in a festive mood since we were approaching our biggest festival “Dashain”. Maybe this was the reason that helped us keep moving and forget about the exhaustion. All the positive vibes accumulated from these Schengen lands inspired us to plan another huge official visit which would be to the United Kingdom (UK) being planned for February 2023. We are definitely looking forward to the upcoming trip to the UK which we believe will be a perfect wrap-up of the UK and European countries to showcase our success stories.

Day 2:

It was a beautiful morning. The sun was already up at 7am. As expected, the previous day’s hike had taken a toll on everyone. Our legs were hurting but that was the least of our concerns. Our destination for this day was Markhu which was one and half hours walk from Chitlang. After a heavy breakfast, we gathered our strength and once again started walking. The journey from Chitlang to Markhu was the most beautiful experience of this trip for me, partly because of the amazing weather and the beautiful walking trails which took us deep into the Salla forest and mostly because of the final destination we reached. We encountered no one throughout the journey. Warm sunlight managed to peak in through spaces between tall trees. We could hear the sound of river gushing beneath the hill. Markhu was basically downhill from Chitlang and sometimes it was very slippery to walk on the wet stones, but we had great pairs of shoes on, everyone of us. Prajwal dai had really switched on the PHOTOGRAPHER in him that day; he took some really amazing pictures. Sunil dai, our GPS expert, had switched on the SINGER in him that day; he was singing through the entire way. I, on the other hand, was just happy to be there, walking and being captivated by blissful nature. As we started descending, we saw the breathtaking view of INDRASAROBAR. It was a huge lake and it was spotlessly clean. It is the first and the largest man-made lake prepared for the  Kulekhani Hydro Project. People there said that the lake stretched some 7-8 kms. Certain areas of the lake were separated for fish farming. We could see clear reflection of the sky above and hills around in the lake. Roaming around, we also started sampling. Most of us were enervated but Satish dai’s aka Mr. Mike’s energy was shocking, as if he could dig the entire hill and turn it into a flat land. There was a long suspension bridge nearby connecting two villages on either side of the bridge. It was literally a ‘U-shaped’ bridge with the arms of the U going very up. It was very very windy crossing the bridge. Overall, the ambience was great, relaxing and very peaceful. Unfortunately we did not have much time left for boating, another must-do thing in that place. For lunch, we had the typical daal-bhaat-tarkari but the fish curry was something to die for, so delicious. After that we made our way back to Chitlang once again. We reached just in time to catch the last jeep that took us back to Thankot. Prajwal dai and Atri dai even managed to visit the nearby Goat Cheese Factory in Chitlang. That brought us to the end of our time in Chitlang. On our way back in the jeep, we shared stories of our childhood, cracked stupid jokes and recollected the reminiscences of the amazing place we had just left behind.

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