By Mike Grasso, Helen Struthers and Tim Lane
“I had just completed my Honors in Sociology and not only was I eager to start working, I was eager to learnt, to help and to put into practice everything I had learnt at the University.”
Mpho Silima was excited as she anticipated conducting fieldwork for an NIH-sponsored HIV prevention research collaboration. She was fresh out of university in 2011 and joining her three friends Nosipho Makhakhe, Nathi Zuma and Kabelo Maleke at the Anova Health Institute. They all hoped to pivot from academia to practice and transform social problems into community solutions. For nearly 10 years, the Anova Health Institute, UCSF’s Center for AIDS Prevention Studies and the Institute for Global Health Sciences have partnered too build the capacity of South African health researchers. Silima and her colleagues-- early-career South African researchers --reflect here on their journey and the meaning of capacity building:
Mpho Silima “My first role at Anova was a research assistant. This role was ideal for me as I have always had an inquisitive mind, enjoyed learning more about people and their experiences, because I always felt the more I engaged with people from different contexts than that of my own, the more I realised that despite our differences, at the core, we are all the same.
In my first year at Anova, I was introduced to ethnographic research by UCSF. We lived in the communities under study for a minimum of three months at a time, fully entrenching ourselves into the lives of the communities we were working with. The ethnography was such an important aspect of the work we intended to do because it helped plan for an Mpowerment intervention for men who have sex with men (MSM). The continuous capacity building on the methodology was so important in ensuring that I conducted quality work whilst in the field.”
“After working as a research assistant I was then exposed to quantitative research as a site coordinator for the Mpumalanga Men’s Study. [In preparation for the study] we received extensive capacity building on respondent driven sampling (RDS). [In this leadership role] I was then given the opportunity over the next three years to train more than 50 staff members on all processes and implementation of RDS; ‘till this day many of my past staff continue to excel with other successful Anova/UCSF programmes. I take pride in the knowledge I was able to transfer with the support that I had received from Anova/UCSF.”
“In the past year, I have left the public health sector and have been involved in development, specifically working in the area of gender-based violence. However I cannot emphasize enough how important the skills I learnt through Anova/UCSF were to me. One of the key lessons I have learnt and always apply in my work is the importance of being thorough and ensuring community engagement is at the core of all interventions. Ensuring that interventions are an iterative process of consistently engaging with the community should be there be any changes. This has really been the secret to our successful programmes.”
Nosipho Makhakhe “I started working for Anova Health Institute in 2011 right after I had just completed my honours degree in sociology from Wits University. Initially hired as a research assistant, I acquired research skills such as participant interviewing, facilitation of focus group discussions and conducting structured observations. I also wrote weekly reports which improved my report-writing skills and attention to detail and learned how to analyse qualitative data. Working as a research assistant in these studies sparked my interest in qualitative HIV research especially among key populations. UCSF through Anova conducted regular academic writing/capacity building workshops and as research assistants we were given an opportunity to engage with the quantitative data from different studies. Learning from seasoned researchers and academics on how to go about the writing process, these workshops helped me to gain a passion and appreciation for academic writing, to disseminate knowledge and influence policy.”
“At the moment I have published three papers from the qualitative research I led, and I am hoping to publish three more currently under peer review. The writing of these papers was through the valuable contribution of co-authors from both Anova and UCSF. These experienced academic writers firstly believed in the papers that I wanted to write, and helped me elevate my ideas and writing skills to a level suitable for publication. The principal investigators from UCSF were also kind enough to allow me to analyse and write up the formative data that we collected from the female sex worker study for my Masters [degree] in Health Promotion, in which I graduated cum laude at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). I also see myself as a young and growing researcher advancing research in key populations primarily among female sex workers, as well as among adolescent girls and young women. I also see myself mentoring students who are interested in academic writing, since I am currently working as a teaching assistant for the health promotion Masters’ class at UKZN. “
Nathi Zuma “My involvement with the UCSF team and Anova Health Institute started in January 2011 as a research assistant after I graduated with an honours degree in sociology from the University of the Witwatersrand. As a research assistants, I conducted formative work evaluating the feasibility of the Mpumalanga Men’s Study, an integrated biological and behavioural surveillance (IBBS). The findings from this helped the principal investigators prepare for a future study, a study which I eventually became a site coordinator for. This provided me with an opportunity to gain practical experience and enhance my understanding of ethnographic and quantitative research methodologies. As a site coordinator I had an opportunity to learn and implement different sampling techniques such time-location sampling (TLS) and respondent-driven sampling (RDS). From this experience I was able to apply some of the newly learnt techniques into my master’s degree in sociology from the University of the Witwatersrand. Through the Anova and UCSF partnership I gained valuable experience including management of research sites, implementation of study protocols, building and maintaining relationships with different stakeholders and, most importantly, to provide leadership and contribute to the growth of my team members. At present, I’m leading four ‘Mpowerment’ projects in South Africa, and in the future I see myself becoming a principal investigator, contributing to the existing body of knowledge and growing as a leader and manager.”
Kabelo Maleke “I had recently graduated from the University of The Witwatersrand with an honours in Social Anthropology when I started at Anova in September 2010. At the point of my employment, Anova and UCSF had never worked in the Mpumalanga province before. Anova sent me to do a feasability of implementing an HIV research project there. My friends and I had to understand and report on the local MSM and transgender communities’ experiences of community building, stigma and discrimination and HIV. This was an amazing opportunity to use my anthropology training. From here, I was promoted to coordinating a MSM HIV surveillance site, which included training new staff in research methodologies, research ethics and good clinical practice. My mentors at Anova and UCSF also supported my successful amfAR scholarship proposal to the University of Pittsburgh, where I further learnt more about public health research, especially pertaining to LGBTI individuals around the globe.
My life’s work has led me to conferences where I’ve presented papers and research as well as several authored and co-authored publications. Anova and UCSF, through this work, have allowed a great deal of people to build skills they would have otherwise not been exposed to, including myself.”
These four South Africans’ careers are examples of the capacity that research collaborations like Anova-UCSF can build. But it must equally be said that these young scholars’ intuition, ambition and commitment to social justice in South Africa built Anova’s and UCSF’s capacity to fight HIV in some of their country’s most stigmatized and disadvantaged communities. Each is figuring out what comes next in their careers—managerial roles in non-government organizations, or a return to academia for advanced degree research. Whatever their path forward, Anova and UCSF are proud to have given them their start; and owe them a debt of thanks.
Mike Grasso, Helen Struthers and Tim Lane lead the UCSF-Anova partnership.