The African Studies Center at U-M has a deep commitment to fostering collaborative research and scholarship in Africa and with its scholars. Through our seed grant competition, the ASC supports early-stage joint research projects bringing together U-M faculty and researchers affiliated with universities on the continent. We report here on the work that has been supported by recent ASC seed grants to showcase the breadth of this scholarship and to encourage other U-M-based scholars to consider applying for a Seed Grant award with one or more colleagues on the continent. 

Oluwakemi Rotimi (Covenant University, Nigeria) and Jackie Goodrich (University of Michigan) met through Authoraid, which connects scholars worldwide to each other and aims to set up mentorship and collaborative partnerships between academics in high and low-income national settings. However, their collaboration flourished after Rotimi took residence as a UMAPS scholar at U-M in 2017/18 under the mentorship of Goodrich. The two scholars have continued to work together and recently co-authored a paper which emerged after further support from an ASC seed grant, titled Early Life Exposure to Aflatoxin B1 in Rats: Alterations in Lipids, Hormones, and DNA Methylation among the Offspring. The article studies the effects of a toxin produced by molds that grow on improperly stored grains in many African countries. 

Aflatoxins can have many harmful effects, and the two scholars told ASC that aflatoxins, particularly aflatoxin B1, are known to cause liver cancer. Studies in Nigeria show that these toxicants can transfer from pregnant women to children in the womb. It is imperative, then, to understand how aflatoxins emerge and grow, how they affect people at different stages of life, and how best their growth can be mitigated. In order to do this, Rotimi and Goodrich looked at exposure to these toxicants in utero to see the effect in offspring when the child is born. They did this by using animal models, exposing pregnant rats to different levels of the toxicant, and found that exposure affects the weight of infant rats. Higher doses of aflatoxin in pregnant rats were associated with lower birth weights, and this persisted when the authors followed the exposed rats into early adulthood (three months of age). Additionally, the scholars found that lipid concentrations of the rats were impacted by in utero exposure and that the testosterone levels of exposed offspring were lower.

Speaking about their research, Rotimi stated that “some of the things we have seen in animals, we must ask if the same thing translates to humans.” For this reason, Rotimi and Goodrich are expanding their work even further through a new grant proposal which, Goodrich said, “will run a human study in Nigeria to see the effects of aflatoxin in humans, specifically pregnant mothers.” This grant will help Rotimi “become a global leader” in this field of research, as the study aims to determine the translation of the animal-model research to humans. The ultimate goal of this research is to inform prevention and intervention efforts to protect human populations from exposure to aflatoxins because of their highly detrimental health consequences. Goodrich commented that “before UMAPS, Rotimi had done important work with aflatoxins but had not yet studied exposure during pregnancy.” UMAPS and the ASC seed grant allowed the two scholars, according to Goodrich, to “combine our expertise as the grant funded the rat exposure model in Rotimi’s lab. It also supported Rotimi in shipping DNA samples from Nigeria to my U-M lab to assess epigenetics” in order to understand how gene regulation is impacted by aflatoxin exposure. 

This ongoing research is an exciting window into ASC’s continued support of African scholarship, as it shows how Africa/US academic exchange can lead to long-term innovations across continents. Rotimi stressed that the seed grant and her UMAPS residency enabled her the opportunity to work in Goodrich’s laboratory and use its equipment as well as associated expertise in epigenetics, which is concentrated at U-M. This collaboration is ongoing as a researcher from Rotimi’s department at Covenant University in Nigeria is due to take up a UMAPS residency with Goodrich at U-M in the upcoming fall semester. Reflecting on both the UMAPS program and the STEM-Africa seed grant through ASC, Goodrich stated that they provided the institutional and financial support to establish and continue the laboratory work at both universities. As Rotimi noted, this research program will enable understanding of how “aflatoxins in food impact mothers and children who are eating contaminated food all the time in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, because the mold can grow there.”