New fellowship program will bring African scientists to train at NIH

By Shana Potash

A new NIH fellowship program aims to prepare future generations of African researchers while establishing ongoing scientific partnerships between NIH labs and African investigators and institutions. The African Postdoctoral Training Initiative (APTI) is a collaboration of the NIH, the African Academy of Sciences and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Fogarty is managing the partnership.

During the four-year fellowships, NIH will provide two years of training with principal investigators who share the fellows’ research interests. The African scientists will then return to their home institutions and receive two years of support to help them continue their research and establish themselves as independent investigators.

Ten fellows chosen for the inaugural cohort will assume their NIH positions by early 2019 and another cohort is expected to be recruited in 2020. NIH and the Gates Foundation together are expected to provide about $4 million for the program.

“Our goal is to equip these talented African fellows with the skills to become scientific leaders, prepared to help solve their country’s health challenges and train future generations of researchers,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins, whose intramural research lab will host one of the fellows. “By designing the African Postdoctoral Training Initiative to begin at NIH and then continue at their home institution, we aim to prevent ‘brain drain,’ build sustainable research capacity, and establish long-term collaborations between U.S. scientists and African investigators and research institutions.”

The fellows chosen for the 2019 cohort come from six African countries: Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Egypt. They have been matched with labs from seven institutes at NIH and will study diseases and conditions that are research priorities in their respective countries, including infectious diseases, maternal and child health, and diabetes.

“It’s an opportunity to learn new techniques, new skills,” said Dr. Nana Ama Amissah, a fellow from Ghana who is training with Dr. Michael Otto, a senior investigator with NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), who shares her research interest in the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium. Because S. aureus can reside in chronic wounds, Amissah has been investigating if and how it might delay the healing of buruli ulcers – a potentially devastating skin and tissue infection that is caused by Mycobacterium ulcerans and occurs mainly in tropical areas including West Africa.

Noting that Amissah has had interesting results on a specific lineage of S. aureus, Otto said “she can benefit very much from the research environment at the NIH right now to dig deeper.”

During the fellowship Amissah will be learning and conducting basic science she couldn’t do back at home. She took courses in molecular biology and recombinant DNA technology to prepare to work with Otto, who is chief of the Pathogen Molecular Genetics Section. “If there’s anything I don’t understand, I go to him and then he explains it better,” Amissah said.

Amissah and three other fellows will be working in NIAID labs. The other NIH institutes hosting 2019 fellows are the National Cancer Institute (NCI); National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI); National, Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI); National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK); National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR).

The fellowship program targets early career scientists who have doctoral degrees and less than five years of research experience. Candidates must also be citizens of an African country and employed at one of the continent’s academic, research or government institutions.

“It is imperative to strengthen African scientific leadership to advance health and development goals on the continent. We are thrilled to partner with the NIH and the African Academy of Sciences to support these 10 outstanding researchers working to solve the world’s greatest health challenges,” said Dr. Trevor Mundel, President of the Global Health Division at the Gates Foundation. “To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, the world needs to accelerate innovation and global scientific collaboration. Training from NIH, one of the world’s foremost biomedical research institutions, will help these scientists develop the transformational solutions the world and their communities urgently need.”