Fast-track to project skills for African researchers
Africa is particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks, and the continent has large gaps in preventative healthcare. So it makes sense to build regional capacity to find solutions to these health problems. An EU-funded project trained new graduates in Africa to develop health research programmes and share scientific knowledge.
© paulmz - Fotolia.com
In the APARET project, graduates in field epidemiology – the study of the causes and spread of diseases – followed a two-year programme on planning and managing research.
All from African universities, the graduates developed their own epidemiology research projects in eight host African academic institutions. At the same time, they were coached to design and manage projects, submit them to international funding calls, draft and review papers for scientific publications and train other epidemiologists.
Rather than “giving” research topics to the fellows, the EU-funded programme developed and supported the fellows’ own plans – promoting research initiated in Africa and expanding African capacity to improve public health, both in Africa and worldwide.
One graduate has continued research started in APARET on rotavirus vaccination, while other fellows have become trainers themselves – during the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, in other training programmes or at academic institutes, says programme manager Elizeus Rutebemberwa of Makere University, Kampala.
The host African institutions also benefited from the information and support provided to the graduates. And as members of the project consortium, they strengthened links with each other, European project partners and AFENET (the African Field Epidemiology Network).
Graduates in field epidemiology were invited – through the APARET and AFENET homepages – to apply for APARET. Applicants submitted their CV and a research proposal for a topic they chose themselves, such as low-cost malaria diagnosis or improving cervical cancer screening take-up.
The 24 successful applicants received a two-year contract for their project with a host institute in Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Uganda or Burkina Faso. Eight researchers started every year over three years to allow one-to-one training, with on-the-job coaching from an institute supervisor and distance support from an APARET mentor.
Project coordinator Norbert Georg Schwarz of Germany’s Bernhard-Nocht-Institut für Tropenmedizin says: “We used a hands-on approach to learning through a real project because students learn best if they work on their own idea. It is more motivating,”
In the first year of each programme, researchers attended APARET workshops on writing grant applications and managing research programmes.
In the second year, researchers used this training to submit proposals for large grants for further research in response to calls from real projects with major overseas research funders. At the same time, fellows continued their projects with the host institutes.
“APARET added the step between research training and project development and implementation, including the grant application process,” says Schwarz.
For the project at the host institute, the research fellows applied for an internal APARET grant of around €3 500 for laboratory and survey materials, field work and data entry staff costs. This gave them experience of managing a research budget, while their salary was covered by the host institution.
The large grants stage taught APARET fellows to search for funding for future work and also cope with refusals – a common experience in academic life.
Of the 24 researchers who began the programme, 23 completed it receiving a certificate at the end of the course. The remaining researcher left the programme to start a new job.
The training courses went to plan and were within budget. And as the programme was started every year for three years, it was possible to improve the curriculum and course design throughout the project.
One change was to make the application process for the APARET grants more efficient. Fellows obtained ethical clearance for projects earlier in the programme and had more time to be coached on the large grant proposals.
Another change was to invite supervisors and mentors to the fellows’ initial workshop, to better support the project and the fellow.
Schwarz explains that although APARET will not continue, AFENET held a proposal-writing workshop in Kampala in January 2015 – picking up an important APARET element – and that APARET graduates will use their skills to initiate future projects.
“The project demonstrated the benefits of good-quality mentoring for young researchers,” he adds. “We have built skills and capacity in field epidemiology research.”