NIH Training Grant Enhances PhD and Postdoctoral Training Programs at the University of Zambia

UPV teamIn continuing longstanding training collaborations between the University of Zambia School of Medicine/University Teaching Hospital (UNZA/UTH) and the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health (VIGH), UNZA/UTH is partnering with VIGH on a renewal of a five-year research training grant from the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to strengthen HIV- and non-communicable disease-focused research capacity. The UNZA-Vanderbilt Training Partnership for HIV-NCD Research (UVP-2) program establishes support to bolster UNZA’s institutional research capacity and academic leadership.

As access to antiretroviral therapy for HIV has expanded in sub-Saharan Africa, millions of persons with HIV survive for decades on treatment. Still, they are developing chronic non-communicable disease (NCD) complications that require new science and new directions in prevention, detection, and treatment. Recognizing that investigation and control of NCDs can be most effectively undertaken by highly trained local investigators, the University of Zambia (UNZA)-Vanderbilt Partnership for HIV Nutrition Research Training (UVP-1) supported PhD training for 11 Zambian scientists pursuing a wide range of HIV-NCD research. This training initiative helped to strengthen the UNZA PhD program and the culture of mentorship at UNZA.

The UVP-1 to UVP-2 transition includes shifting the grant’s prime institution from Vanderbilt to UNZA, and the principal investigator from Douglas C. Heimburger, MD, MS, a professor of medicine at VIGH to Wilbroad Mutale, MBChB, PhD, an associate professor in UNZA’s School of Public Health and adjunct associate professor in Vanderbilt’s Department of Medicine. In addition, the UVP Leadership Team includes Selestine Nzala, MBChB, MPH and Perfect Shankalala at UNZA and Annet Kirabo, PhD and Holly Cassell, MPH.

Dr. Mutale expanded upon the impact of the transition from Vanderbilt to UNZA as the prime institution. “I am very glad to be part of this great capacity-building grant supported by NIH. The most exciting thing about this new phase is that UNZA will be the prime institution taking over from Vanderbilt University. This is how capacity building is supposed to work and we hope others will learn from our example. I am also looking forward to strengthening postdoctoral training at UNZA, which will be a big part of UVP-2.”

Dr. Heimburger added, “It has been tremendously gratifying to see this research training program lead to real gains in strength and impact for UNZA and the health of the people of Zambia. UNZA faculty members have taught each other how to be better mentors, leaders, and managers. Research trainees have grown into research leaders, the institution has taken a leadership role within the region, and it is truly ready to lead this program.”

UVP-2 will continue training initiatives developed under UVP-1 with a focus on advancing academic leadership and mentorship within UNZA. The grant will also extend the two-institution “sandwich” model of PhD training and use a similar model to develop a postdoctoral training fellowship program to build a pipeline of independent UNZA scientists. These programs will train five UNZA Ph.D. students and four UNZA postdoctoral scientists in advanced basic, clinical/translational, epidemiologic, and implementation sciences to address the complications and comorbidities most relevant to lifelong HIV management in sub-Saharan Africa.

To support the new program at UNZA, UVP-2 will introduce new research training mechanisms and support structures, including career development resources focused on writing successful grant applications. In addition, the program will establish a Visiting Faculty Scholars three-month sabbatical at Vanderbilt for four UNZA faculty to focus on developing collaborations and submitting grant applications.

Program leaders also plan to develop a UNZA Biostatistics Support Core to provide structured biostatistics advising and collaboration by UNZA biostatisticians to UNZA investigators, students, and postdoctoral fellows. Working in partnership with the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, UVP-2 will provide additional bioinformatics training opportunities for selected trainees. This training will build on the genome and RNA sequencing capacity in the research lab of UVP-1 alumnus Lloyd Mulenga, MBChB, PhD, Director of Infectious Diseases in the Zambia Ministry of Health, Director of Infectious Diseases at the UNZA School of Medicine, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in Vanderbilt’s Department of Medicine.

UVP-2 will foster additional collaborations with the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA), an Africa-based, Africa-led initiative that works to strengthen the capacity of African universities to produce well-trained and skilled researchers and scholars in Africa.

The project will focus on strengthening UNZA’s capacity to train researchers, attract research funding, and generate high-impact research outputs across a broad range of HIV-NCD investigations.

Both cycles of UVP are supported by grant 1D43TW009744 from the Fogarty International Center of the US National Institutes of Health.