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Focus: MEPI program enabled African junior faculty to develop research skills, become independent investigators

March / April 2021 | Volume 20 Number 2

Researcher working in lab examines samples.
Photo by Richard Lord for Fogarty

MEPI Jr faculty fellows reported the program helped them
become independent investigators, improve their ability to
write successful grant applications and journal articles, and
advance in their careers.

By Susan Scutti

Although sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) bears an enormous portion of the global burden of disease, it lacks the adequate research capacity to investigate locally relevant solutions needed to improve health. Brain drain is also a problem, with many well-trained professionals continuing to leave SSA to work in better- resourced health systems. To help address this shortfall, the NIH began a program in 2015 to develop research expertise and improve faculty retention at institutions in eight countries across the region. More than $36.4 million was invested over five years, with funding from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the NIH Common Fund and nine other NIH partners. Fogarty managed the program, which provided training, mentorship and research support to 362 junior faculty fellows. The Medical Education Partnership Initiative Junior Faculty Research Training (MEPI-Jr) program builds on its predecessor, the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which earlier provided $130 million over five years to enhance the quality and quantity of medical school graduates in SSA.

As the MEPI-Jr program comes to a close, its participants are reporting impressive accomplishments. Many said the fellowship helped them begin to envision a scientific career and provided their first opportunity for protected time to carry out research projects. Their study topics were intended to focus on urgent local research priorities and ran the gamut from infectious diseases such as HIV and TB, to maternal and child health, to noncommunicable diseases including diabetes, hypertension and depression.

Many fellows said they were able to complete master’s or doctoral degrees with MEPI-Jr support. A number revealed the program helped them earn promotions in their academic institutions, expand their networks and gain confidence in applying for grants and submitting research papers for publication. Writing workshops hosted by the program resulted in a total of 886 published scientific papers. With an additional 191 papers currently in-process, the total is more than 1,000 manuscripts. Over the life of the program, participants submitted 552 applications for grants and fellowships, with a success rate of 34% or 187 awards.

The program also enabled fellows to take part in regional and international conferences, where they made more than 450 scientific presentations. The initiative also spawned 71 independent classes, courses and workshops focusing on epidemiology, mentorship training, project management, biostatistics analysis and scientific writing. Early reports from three participating institutions indicate that MEPI-Jr fellows have themselves mentored 866 students and postgraduates. Post-program success stories include fellows whose research results have earned them a place at the table with health ministry policymakers.

Generally, MEPI-Jr fellows reported acquiring important new skills, particularly in the areas of research design, project implementation and data analysis. All expressed greater confidence in their ability to communicate both in writing and in day-to-day interactions with other scientists. They also said the local and international mentors framed their expectations, provided them with new opportunities and taught them invaluable lessons about mentoring others.

MEPI Jr funding partners included PEPFAR; the NIH Common Fund; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD); Fogarty; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI); National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR); National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS); National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR); National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD); NIH Office of AIDS Research (OAR) and NIH Office of Research on Women's Health (ORWH).

Voices of MEPI Junior Faculty fellows:

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