Boosting African research collaborations on the genetics of neuropsychiatric disorders

GINGER fellows
Dean Michelle Williams, front row, second from left, with GINGER research fellows and Atalay Alem, a professor from Ethiopia's Addis Ababa University (front row, left)

August 31, 2017—This summer, 17 early-career African scientists came together at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health for an introduction to the field of neuropsychiatric genetics, attending sessions ranging from a primer on autism to the mechanics of study design and data analysis. They were inspired by the faculty, but they were also inspired by each other. Before the end of their two-week program, they vowed that when they returned to their home institutions they would work together and do their part to forge new research collaborations across Africa.

This group made up the inaugural cohort of research fellows for the GINGER (Global Initiative for Neuropsychiatric Genetics Education in Research) program, a collaboration between the Harvard Chan School, the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and multiple African universities and institutes. The two-year training program aims to boost genetics research capacity in Africa by training and mentoring the fellows to become independent researchers in the field of neuropsychiatric genetics and be able to pass on what they’ve learned through GINGER to others at their home institutions. Organizers also hope that GINGER fellows will form new study cohorts back home, and ultimately help close gaps in knowledge about mental health in African populations.

GINGER fellows
Abigiya Tilahun, Benyam Dubale, Celia van der Merwe, Symon Kariuki

Building on the summer workshop, which was held July 24–August 4, fellows will spend the next two years taking part in interactive, online classes to build their skills in areas such as epidemiology, scientific writing, and statistical analysis. Next summer, the fellows will come together again for another in-person workshop focusing on bioethics and grant writing. And over the next two years, program faculty and teaching fellows from Harvard Chan School and the Broad Institute will visit each of the six program sites in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda to hold short courses that will be open to students and researchers at their home institutions.

This year’s fellows include Benyam Worku Dubale, an assistant professor and deputy head of department of psychiatry at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, who studies the response to trauma in African populations. Dubale came away from the workshop impressed by the way so many apparently separate disciplines can contribute to and support each other. He said that the experience gave him a much more comprehensive way of looking at neuropsychiatric disorders, and that this had changed his teaching and clinical work for the better.

GINGER fellows
Fellows Shareefa Dalvie, Nastassja Koen, and Celia van der Merwe are all smiles at one of the workshop’s social events

Michelle Hoogenhout, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cape Town and Red Cross Children’s Hospital in South Africa who studies biomarkers of autism and other developmental disorders , lauded the program’s potential to boost the African research community’s ability to design and implement interventions to meet local mental health needs. We need African solutions for African problems,” she said.

News of the fellows’ vow to build intra-Africa collaborations was music to GINGER director Lori Chibnik’s ears. Chibnik, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard Chan School and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, runs the program with associate director Bizu Gelaye, a research scientist and lecturer with appointments at both schools. “That’s the goal of GINGER,” she said. “Successful research isn’t just about gathering data, it’s about empowering people. The only way to adequately address the needs of a population is to engage people from that population in all aspects of research. Our job is to make sure that the GINGER fellows have the training, support, and opportunities to lead discovery research in their communities.”

GINGER is currently recruiting Harvard Chan School students as teaching fellows to assist in the development and implementation of the onsite research courses. Contact for more information.

— Amy Roeder

Photos: Courtesy of GINGER

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Boosting African research collaborations on the genetics of neuropsychiatric disorders (Harvard Chan School news)