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A global journey of career development and capacity strengthening

Published: 13 August 2020

Joe Jarvis, an NIHR Global Research Professor, shares his journey, and how achieving the NIHR’s flagship career development award has helped build a strong multi-national team in Botswana and beyond.

For a large part of my career I followed what many would consider a well-trodden path for medics and clinical academics. I undertook my general medical training in the UK, with six months carrying out malaria research in Gabon. I was then successful in gaining a specialist training post in infectious diseases at St George’s Hospital in London. I was also fortunate to secure Wellcome Trust fellowship funding in clinical tropical medicine enabling me to spend three years in South Africa based at the University of Cape Town and a further six months in the USA at the National Institutes of Health.

My first NIHR career development award

After gaining my PhD in 2011, I received my first career development award with NIHR, a Clinical Lectureship based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Following completion of this, the well-trodden path came to an end. I was determined to establish myself as a clinical academic based in sub-Saharan Africa. I was at the stage in my career where I was beginning to establish my own independent research and I felt that to be fully embedded in my field I needed to be based where the research would have the greatest impact.

Building real and sustainable capacity for research in low and middle income countries is not easy, and requires long-term commitment, but I knew it was essential. At the time my options for funding in the UK, particularly for positions based full-time in sub-Saharan Africa, were fairly limited and often focused purely on a specific research project rather than capacity strengthening and development of local teams.

Compared to the UK, many American universities had much more established global health research programmes; therefore, I made the decision to apply for posts with institutions in the USA. I secured a fully funded position with the University of Pennsylvania at their Botswana-UPenn Partnership – a partnership between Penn, the Botswana Ministry of Health, and the University of Botswana. This allowed me to live and work in Botswana full-time, and included a small start-up fund, that along with a number of pilot grants, helped me establish a small but growing research group here.

The surprise of being awarded a NIHR Global Research Professorship

While this was a busy and challenging time in my career, starting and managing many new research projects, I also spent a lot of time building collaborations and networks with institutions in Botswana, the USA and the UK, and with policy decision makers and influencers. This provided a platform from which to take the next major step in my career - applying for one of the first NIHR Global Research Professorships in 2018. As it was a brand new funding scheme, I was not sure my application would be what the panel were looking for, but fortunately, and to my slight surprise after a very challenging interview, I was awarded the Professorship.

My professorship aims to address four scientific objectives:

  1. Develop a meningitis surveillance network in Botswana using metagenomic testing to describe meningitis aetiology
  2. Evaluate new tests for meningitis capable of testing for many different infections at once and diagnosing infection at the bedside;
  3. Test a new treatment for cryptococcal meningitis (CM), the commonest cause of meningitis in this setting, based on a single very high dose of an existing drug called liposomal amphotericin; and
  4. Perform a detailed examination of the patients’ immune responses and genetic make-up to try to find out why some patients develop CM while others don’t, and what factors are associated with death from CM

Although I’m only a year and a half into my NIHR Global Research Professorship, it has already given me the opportunity to really focus on these key areas.

I’ve also strengthened existing collaborations, built a number of new research partnerships, and expanded my involvement with researchers and healthcare professionals in the region, and with the Botswana Ministry of Health.

Training and capacity strengthening is one of the most important aspects of my research career. My award has given me the opportunity to develop a multi-national team including five PhDs (three African students and two UK students) and a post-doc. And being based in Botswana I’m also able to provide regular clinical and academic mentoring and informal teaching for other researchers; a very fulfilling part of the job and one which provides a constant source of motivation and new ideas for my research programme.

Basing myself in Botswana at this stage in my career was probably the best thing I could do for my research. It gave me the opportunity to really understand the issues from the people being impacted by them. I was able to ask the right questions to the right people and build some truly effective and sustainable collaborations. All of this was with the aim of using my research to develop feasible and implementable solutions which will actually work for people in the region.

The fourth round of the NIHR Global Research Professorship launches on 24 September 2020.

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