Taking microbial research from nano to global

Lauren Smith

Apr 1, 2024

A diverse group of college students gathered around Tagbo Niepa, listening to him speak.

Source: Tagbo Niepa

International funding opportunity will steer collaboration and the training of an international cadre to address global health challenges.

With nanoscale research, Tagbo Niepa is making a global footprint.

Niepa, associate professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering, traveled to Barranquilla, Colombia, in February for the First Connections to Sustain Science in Latin America Symposium. It was organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to facilitate research collaboration within and beyond the region, with a focus on early and mid-career researchers.

In the opening poster session, Niepa presented his research on the use of electrochemical currents to eradicate Candida auris, a type of yeast that can cause severe illness. C. auris spreads easily and is often resistant to antifungal treatments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers it an emerging threat. The Niepa μBiointerface Lab uses electrochemical currents to make the microbe more sensitive to antifungal drugs.

A group of around 90 adults stands on stone steps outside, posing for a group photo.

Source: Tagbo Niepa

Tagbo Niepa was amongst the US delegates attending the First Connections to Sustain Science in Latin America Symposium in Colombia in February 2024.

Niepa was also invited to the Second US-Africa Frontiers of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Symposium in Rabat, Morocco, in January. The selection process for each symposium was rigorous: from almost 600 applicants to each one, the National Academies invited approximately 95 scientists to participate. Slightly more than half of the participants were from the region in which the symposium was held, with the remainder from the United States.

In Morocco, Niepa presented his research on nanocultures, which are microsystems designed to encapsulate microbes. The Niepa μBiointerface Lab is developing a high-throughput technology to replicate the human microbiome. His approach was new to many at the symposium, and his poster generated a lot of interest.

Scientific collaboration between the US and Africa can accelerate the development of innovative, scientific solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges. As is often done in the US, engaging the next generation in research early in their education can incite their curiosity and inspire new career paths. Africa is on track to become the continent with the youngest population within a few decades. "More of the young minds that will be innovating globally will be from Africa, and we do well participating in their training," says Niepa.

Tagbo Niepa speaks from a podium

Source: Tagbo Niepa

Tagbo Niepa presented his nanoculture technology to an international audience during the Second US-Africa Frontiers of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Symposium in Morocco in January 2024.

Both symposia highlighted the mechanisms through which the National Academies and the US Department of Defense can facilitate interactions between scientists from the US and developing countries, where research funding can make a major impact. "If we provide technical support to them as collaborators, we might be able to make breakthrough discoveries faster and at a lower cost," explains Niepa.

Niepa has an existing collaboration with Dakar American University of Science and Technology (DAUST) and the Institute for Health Research, Epidemiological Surveillance and Training (IRESSEF) in Senegal. At the DAUST-IRESSEF Global Health Technology Research Center and in his lab at Carnegie Mellon, Niepa is developing technology to encapsulate parasitic microbes for detection and diagnosis. "I would like to tailor that to the reality of Senegal, where malaria is prevalent," he says. "If the technology is successful in Senegal, it will help address rare and parasitic diseases, such as babesiosis, here."

At a conference in Dakar, Senegal, last November, Niepa's keynote address caught the attention of a Tunisian scientist, Professor Cherine Charfeddine, working on genetic disorders resulting from consanguinity. She found that the children of marriages among close family members are more susceptible to infections from yeast that grows on the skin. She approached Niepa about a possible connection to his work on Candida spp. and put together a program for him to visit Tunisia after the National Academies symposium in Morocco.

If we work together, the exchange of technology and knowledge can allow us to be at a level that we are not achieving right now.

Tagbo Niepa, Associate Professor, Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering

While in Tunisia, Niepa gave one talk at the Higher Institute of Biotechnology of Sidi-Thabet (ISBT) and a second at the Institut Pasteur de Tunis. He also visited research laboratories and Open Startup, a hub for digital innovation and entrepreneurship. "If we work together, the exchange of technology and knowledge can promote science and allow us to be at a level that we are not achieving right now," he says.

For Niepa, global leadership is a form of service to science. He wants to help lower the barriers that prevent science from being done worldwide. "This is an integral part of my role as a professor and a natural bridge connecting teaching, research, and global impact," he adds. "Therefore, transforming these invitations to speak at international forums into avenues for exploring how innovations from my lab apply across borders and address challenges in diverse contexts becomes a new opportunity." By learning from this process, Niepa aims to continually refine his work, foster collaborations, and contribute to a more interconnected scientific community.

For media inquiries, please contact Lauren Smith at lsmith2@andrew.cmu.edu.

Learn more about CMU and Africa

Carnegie Mellon researchers have collaborations across the continent in topics ranging from biotechnology to air quality.

In addition, CMU has been located in Africa since 2011 at the Rwanda location, CMU-Africa. The location offers three master's degrees through Carnegie Mellon's top-ranked College of Engineering: Information Technology, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Engineering Artificial Intelligence. CMU-Africa is the only US research university offering its master's degrees with a full-time faculty, staff, and operations in Africa.