December 21, 2022

Securing the future of vaccine research through capacity strengthening in Africa and India

Blog perspective from a graduate of the first cohort of the IAVI ADVANCE Leadership Development Program.

By Kawela Mumba-Mwangelwa, study physician, Centre for Family Health Research in Zambia

As we emerge from COVID-19, the need for cutting-edge scientific research across every global region remains vital to pandemic preparedness and improving healthcare for people around the world. Driven by the right human capital and underpinned by the correct infrastructure, cutting-edge scientific research is key to finding solutions to existing and emerging global health challenges that burden and strain our health systems.

For the longest time, the capacity to conduct world-class scientific research has not been uniform across the globe. Previous studies, including a recent one by the Global Health Network, Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health, University of Oxford, reveal a disproportionately low number of biomedical and clinical researchers in low- and middle- income countries, relative to their high burden of disease. This has created the need to strengthen science systems in such countries, including collaborations focused on capacity-strengthening that involve local research institutions, the people within as well as global stakeholders.

Kawela Mumba receives LDP Certificate of Completion HomepageKawela Mumba receives her Leadership Development Program Certificate of Completion

I was privileged to be among the first cohort that graduated from a unique research leadership program that was crafted to provide the much-needed training and mentorship. The IAVI ADVANCE Leadership Development Program (LDP) seeks to develop a critical mass of promising scientific leaders uniquely equipped to advance the field for next-generation AIDS vaccine development in Africa and India. Launched in July 2021, LDP is part of the capacity strengthening initiatives for Africa and India under the ADVANCE (Accelerate the Development of Vaccines and New Technologies to Combat the AIDS Epidemic) program. ADVANCE is a 10-year cooperative agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

As a study physician based at the Centre for Family Health Research in Zambia, I am involved in various studies aimed at accelerating the development of vaccines and new technologies to combat the AIDS epidemic, and more recently COVID-19. My ambition, as a gender equity champion, has been to promote scientific leadership of women and work toward mentoring upcoming researchers. LDP has provided me with an opportunity to move toward this goal through mentorship and capacity strengthening initiatives for the last eighteen months. The program has played a significant part in my career development, as it assisted me in identifying and defining difficulties that may arise in leadership roles that cross my path, as well as gaining an understanding of various leadership styles. Throughout the program, I was able to build a critical understanding of strategy formulation and creative idea execution. I look forward to coaching others and cultivating a new generation of competent and intelligent leaders who will ultimately improve our work and results.

Through lectures and seminar series provided by a team of global experts, LDP provided an all-round introduction to HIV vaccine development, soft skills trainings in leadership, grantsmanship training, and mentorship from lead experts in different areas of research emphasis. The strategic value of LDP is in the comprehensive curriculum that covers multiple thematic areas, including (1) epidemiology, (2) clinical trials and operations, (3) clinical and basic science, (4) an immunology mini-course, (5) community engagement and social and behavioral research, (6) personalized mentorship from renowned scientists, (7) grant writing training, (8) soft skills training, (9) research ethics, (10) communication skills, and (11) data analysis and tools. It was particularly helpful to stretch out of my comfort zone and learn how to communicate science and establish a closer link between knowledge and policy responses.

A unique aspect of LDP was the mentorship component and soft skills training. I was paired with a mentor who provided guidance on research career planning. Part of the process involved developing an individual career plan that was reviewed regularly against set goals with my mentor. The mentorship will continue beyond the LDP training. The training in financial, project, and conflict management will enable me to step up to increased leadership responsibilities in HIV biomedical prevention research and other broad areas of research.

I think what made the program most impactful is that it was developed in response to a needs assessment which identified barriers to advancement of early career fellows to become independent scientists within the ADVANCE partner network. It further unearthed the need for stronger scientific networks and worldwide linkages by early career scientists, the need to build technical scientific and soft skills, and the need for mentorship.

As it is often said, “mentorship is a journey and not a destination.” It is my hope that the program lives longer to position more African scientists to play meaningful roles in setting research agenda in HIV biomedical prevention research as well as other disease areas. Picking from lessons learnt in the first cohort, future LDP cohorts may benefit a lot more from a curriculum tailored to the specific needs of participants to be maximally effective. If we are to succeed in the efforts toward finding an HIV vaccine, we must support emerging leadership. Yes, we need great science done, but we also need people who can take it into the future.

About the Author: Kawela Mumba-Mwangelwa is a study physician at the Center for Family Health Research in Zambia (CFHRZ), formerly known as Zambia-Emory HIV Research Project. She is a medical doctor (MBChB) and graduated from the University of Algiers School of Medicine in Algeria in 2014. Currently, she is an MSc candidate with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (infectious diseases). Kawela is a CFHRZ study physician on the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) 705 Phase IIb HIV vaccine efficacy trial, and the COVID-19 Prevention Network (CoVPN) 5001 observational study. She is currently involved in various studies, which include: identifying acute HIV infections in a high-risk women’s cohort; understanding the contribution of other genital disorders to risk of HIV infection; determining markers of disease progression in recent HIV seroconverters from cohort studies; and comparing the natural history of SARS-CoV-2 to the influenza A virus.