UFH Faculty of Health Sciences partners in landmark $1.4m PHD grant programme to train the next generation of HIV/Aids researchers in SA

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The 2nd of May 2023 marked the launch of a groundbreaking multilateral PhD training programme between the University of Fort Hare (UFH), Desmond Tutu Health Foundation (DTHF), Walter Sisulu University (WSU), University of Cape Town and the University of California Global Health Institute (UCGI) that seek to empower the next generation of HIV/Aids researchers in South Africa. 

Dubbed, Khulani Siphile Siphuhle Training Program (KiSS-TP), the training programme is funded by the United States National Institute of Health’s D43 International Research Training Grants programme to the value of $1.4 million over a period of five years (2023-2028) and is supported by the Eastern Cape Department of Health.

The training consortium comprises all the partnering institutions that will offer intensive, interdisciplinary and mentored PhD training to carefully selected Masters-level staff from UFH, WSU and the DTHF research programme in the Eastern Cape.

Sharing some background on this landmark project, UFH Health Sciences Dean, Prof Mzikazi Nduna said, in 2022, the Faculty collaborated with DTHF and UCGHI to implement a mentoring training project for senior staff at the Faculty. During the same period, a memorandum of understanding was signed between UFH and DTHF under which the PhD training and capacity building project falls under.

“It was clear from that training that there was a capacity gap in the Faculty in terms of PhD holders. In 2022, the University approved a policy that a PHD degree would be a minimum requirement for appointment into a lecturer position. These two realities necessitated that we increase opportunities for PhD training to ensure staff in the Faculty improve their academic qualifications.”

According to Prof Nduna, the Faculty has been involved in HIV/Aids, TB, and STI research since its inception.  

“Various members of staff are involved in research on HIV biomedical and psychosocial prevention interventions. Others conduct research on the clinical management of HIV whilst some are involved in generating evidence on what care and support mechanisms work. This research informs teaching and learning in our postgraduate offerings such as the Master of Public Health programme as well as our flagship Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Management of HIV/Aids programme.

Expanding on the significance and the impact of this joint research training venture, Prof Nduna said it would address the endemic shortage of academics and researchers the country is currently facing.

“This is especially so in rural provinces such as the Eastern Cape. In 2021, the University established a Deputy-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Partnership and Innovation portfolio to support research and postgraduate studies, investment needs to go into supporting this directorate. faculties need to contribute to building research capacity for the University and beyond. This grant will be used towards training that is aimed at building capacity in the field of HIV/AIDS research at Fort Hare, in the Eastern Cape and nationally. Best practice has demonstrated that e can successfully build capacity if we build strong North-South collaborations, and this is one of those for the Faculty.”

“The successful candidates will be registered at UCT and will be taught by Faculty staff from across all the partner Universities. The programme has training opportunities that will be opened to selected candidates through short courses and training workshops. These will be linked to the work that the Faculty is already doing through the seminar series which is hosted at the Health Sciences Institute.”

The programme has multiple principal investigators that are tasked with different roles, and they are:

Andrew Medina-Marino (DTHF) will serve as the contact PI for this grant, including overall administrative and financial oversight of the program, support of mentoring relationships between trainees and DTHF faculty, and collaborations with the other UCT D43 programs. He will also oversee the assignment of mentors.

Linda-Gail Bekker (University of Cape Town) will oversee the administration of the UCT PhD program and will support the mentoring relationships between trainees and UCT faculty.

Craig Cohen (University of California Global Health Institute) will lead the UCGHI component including administration, support of mentoring relationships between trainees and UC faculty, online coursework at UCGHI institutions, and in-country workshops.

Mzikazi Nduna (University of Fort Hare) will oversee the mentoring relationships between trainees and UFH faculty, as well as convene and lead the Mentoring-the-Mentors program for UFH and WSU faculty.

Ola Oladimeji (Walter Sisulu University) will support the mentoring relationships between trainees and WSU faculty, will convene the KiSS-TP Seminar Program, and will manage the mentor-mentee training contract process.

According to Medina-Marino, all the PI’s will ensure proper budget management and necessary oversight for cost control by interacting with the financial management team at DTHF.

Asked about the direct impact of the programme on the province and the country, Prof Nduna responded: “This project is a good example of growing own timber as the candidates will be based in the Eastern Cape institutions and are likely to remain in the province. As for the country, with the aging cohort and the skewed racial distribution of scientists in South Africa, there is an aggressive drive to train the next generation of Black South African scientists. HIV/AIDS remains high on the list of the burden of disease and the cause of mortality in South Africa. Training HIV/AIDS researchers remains a priority for the country if we want to achieve the HIV/AIDS National Strategic Plan (NSP)and SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) of having 95% of people know their statuses, 95% of those who know their status being on treatment, and 95% of those on treatment.

being virally surpassed.”