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University News

School of Public Health granted $1.9 million

The funds will be used for a research collaboration with the University of Cape Town

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 13, 2013

The University’s School of Public Health received a $1.9 million grant to launch a teaching and research collaboration with the University of Cape Town in South Africa to explore innovative ways to manage the HIV epidemic, said Mark Lurie, assistant professor of epidemiology and co-principal investigator for the grant.

The project’s chief goal is to strengthen the ways the two universities teach and mentor students interested in tackling the HIV epidemic from a social science perspective, allowing the University to help the University of Cape Town augment its classroom teaching skills while bolstering Brown’s research capabilities in the field, Lurie said.

“One of the things I have always appreciated about Brown is its focus on teaching,” said Christopher Colvin, senior research officer in HIV/AIDS, TB and STIs at the Univesrity of Cape Town and co-principal investigator of the grant. In most of the world, “We generally don’t train college professors to teach, we train them to do research,” he added.

“Because of Brown’s emphasis on excellence in teaching, we can contribute in a relevant way to the University of Cape Town,” Lurie said.

Through the grant, faculty members from Brown’s Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning will lead teaching and mentoring workshops for University of Cape Town professors. Some training will likely be through video conference, but the grant also provides funds for Sheridan Center faculty members to travel to South Africa, he said.

The grant focuses primarily on teaching junior faculty members classroom and digital skills, said Abigail Harrison, assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences, who is helping organize the project. “The idea is to develop a cadre of younger scholars both on the research side and especially in teaching,” she added.

Brown faculty members will also help the University of Cape Town expand social science studies within the university’s School of Public Health and Family Medicine, Colvin said, adding that most of the classes currently focus on quantitative or clinical skills.

Though the grant is framed as a “training grant,” part of the money will go toward collaborative research projects conducted by faculty members and students at both universities, Lurie said.

University of Cape Town professors will head research collaborations about the social science and public health issues surrounding HIV, Lurie said. There will be two cycles of five to eight projects, each lasting two years, he said, with faculty members and students from both universities working on each project.

University of Cape Town faculty members will take the lead on the research because “we’re by definition based at Brown,” Lurie said. “Local people with local knowledge are going to be the people who really understand the situation.”

The research will focus on three crucial topics to HIV research: antiretroviral treatment, gender and prevention, he said.

Now that many worldwide organizations have taken an interest in ameliorating South Africa’s HIV epidemic, treatment programs have quickly emerged. But after this burst of activism, it is important to examine how to make antiretroviral policies sustainable, Colvin said.

Gender research is key because issues of masculinity cause “persistent and unsolved” problems contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Studies have shown that in the name of masculinity men will have multiple sexual partners or refuse to seek treatment once they have contracted HIV.

And now that the public has wider access to treatment — thanks to increased activism surrounding the issue — it is important to refocus on prevention, Lurie said.

Faculty members will have the opportunity to submit research proposals around February, and the strongest proposals will be selected around March or April, Lurie said.

Both undergraduate and graduate students will have opportunities to become involved in research projects funded by the grant, Lurie said. Though long-term commitment is ideal, undergraduates could potentially spend the summer in South Africa and help with one of the projects, he said.

“A lot of these relationships are often one-sided and driven by northern institutions,” Colvin said, adding that he views this endeavor as an “authentic collaboration.”

This sort of “bi-directional exchange” — by which both universities enrich each other —  makes this collaboration stand out, Harrison said.

“Many new collaborations that we haven’t even begun to think of are likely to emerge just from the meeting of (University of Cape Town and Brown faculty),” Lurie said, adding that he hopes the research and partnerships funded by this grant will provide springboards for longer term projects.

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