Grant Callen is a student at IU School of Medicine and recently arrived in Kenya to begin his year as a NPGH Fogarty Global Health Scholar.
For healthcare workers and research scientists alike there is a litany of acronyms we all know. Most notably among them are the WHO, the CDC, and the NIH. These entities guide our practice and provide us with the resources to expand our knowledge base. I know for many of us who are still trudging through our training that these organizations seem almost ethereal; the idea of working with and receiving support from these entities is something reserved for career researchers with 12 different degrees after their name.
So if you had told me a year ago that I would receive a grant from the NIH to pursue my research interests in Kenya, I would have smiled politely while rolling my eyes internally. But here I am - sitting at my desk in Eldoret - writing this blog post to say that you, too, have what it takes to pursue your passions. If that includes a career in global health research, then the Fogarty Global Health Program for Fellows and Scholars and this blog post are for you!
The Fogarty International Center, the smallest and least well-funded center at the NIH, is fully committed to scientific advancements in global health. The specific goal of the Fellows and Scholars Program is to support a conglomerate of trainees from US consortia and Low-and-Middle-Income Countries (LMIC) in order to foster sustainable, global relationships. Our cohort includes 54 individuals at US institutions and another 53 from institutions in LMIC. The importance of this bilateral exchange and support for early-career global health researchers cannot be understated. As Dr. Roger Glass, Director of the Fogarty Center, recently said, “Diseases know no borders so it's important that we share our expertise and data, and form strong research collaborations - especially in locations with the fewest resources. After all, we are all only as strong as our weakest link.”
Now you might be wondering how doling out dollars to people like me achieves that goal. After all, there’s no course in medical school on becoming the principal investigator of your own project and research team. To that end, the NIH hosts a week-long orientation at their headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. That experience is what I want to share with all of you, and I’ll break it down into two sections: training/career development and research advocacy.
The training portion of the orientation is extensive, thankfully, and starts right away. Each Fellow/Scholar has the opportunity to sit through a two-day workshop in either Quantitative (both introductory and advanced) or Qualitative Analysis. I chose the qualitative workshop, which I would highly recommend, both because of its importance for my own project and my lack of experience in that field. From day one we were provided with a tool for transcribing and coding qualitative data obtained from interviews and focus groups. The sessions ran from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and ensured our success as qualitative researchers.
After those two days we started a series of lectures, workshops, and speaker sessions focused on developing careers in global health. Topics ranged from Mentorship and Cultural Considerations to Research Management and Financial Responsibilities. Each day included sessions on manuscript writing, NIH Career Development Awards, and so on. To read the titles of these few sessions may not sound that impressive, but imagine five whole days where your only job is to soak up knowledge from NIH Directors and consortia leaders about the practices and principles of quality research that have led to their own careers. The experience was nothing short of invaluable.
With all of that being said, it was the second component to this orientation that impressed me most: the commitment to networking and research advocacy. These topics were often addressed during breakfast and lunch sessions, where Directors from different NIH institutes came to discuss their Center-specific work as it applied to future grant awardees. While that information was critical, these sessions also served as an opportunity for Fogarty Fellows and Scholars to find other early-career researchers who were committed to the same types of work. I cannot express how powerful that is for people at the start of their career! As we heard from many, many alumni over our week at the NIH: these are the people who will become our collaborators in the years to come. The opportunity to connect with others whose passions align with yours is incredibly special.
But community-building was not the only goal of these sessions. The driving force behind our networking was a mission to learn how to use our collective voices to advocate for research and to communicate our findings to the world. After all, what good is knowledge if it does not change the lives of those we hope to help?
There is one session that stands out in my mind regarding the importance of our role as research advocates. It was an hour-long talk entitled “Winning Hearts and Minds for Science,” led by Research!America. Their work demonstrated that 80 percent of Americans assign high priority to advancing public health research and innovation; more than 70 percent of people polled would like to see greater efforts to educate the public about advances in research sciences; and - perhaps most importantly - more than half of all Americans believe that scientists should play a major role in shaping public policy around medical/health research, education, infrastructure, and our national defense. These findings have held steady for more than a decade, indicating the importance of our role outside the “ivory tower” of academia.
Now you might be wondering why I am stressing the advocacy component of our orientation and this award, so let me wrap this up by telling you a story:
In the spring of 2017 the current administration put forth a budget that eliminated the Fogarty Center’s funding. Through an impassioned and evidence-based plea by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the Center - and relationships with global health researchers worldwide - was saved. This is not the first time that Dr. Fauci has played this role. As an early-career researcher he dedicated himself to a little-known, highly-controversial disease known as HIV. Despite admonishment from peers and mentors, he pursued his passion and pushed for advancements in HIV research. The combination of scientific knowledge and understanding of advocacy led to an incredible career, wherein he has met with every U.S. President since Reagan to discuss global pandemics like HIV, Zika, Ebola, and more.
So when Dr. Fauci came to our orientation and spoke, it was an honor - but more than that, it was a glimpse into what our futures could be. Regardless of our backgrounds or the fields in which we’ll ultimately end up, we all hope to make an impact through our work. Although it sounds hyperbolic, many of us hope that our contributions to science will help make the world a better place. Receiving the Fogarty and spending a year abroad - unlikely as it may seem, and trust me, I know the feeling - is the foundation for a life spent in the direct service of others. And I think, no matter what field you’re in, that’s something worth pursuing.
Applications are open until November 1, 2019.