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Over 25 years ago, research on malaria vaccine design underlined the lack of first-hand experience of the disease among scientists, and the necessity to build capacity in affected regions. In Kenya, training and support frameworks have empowered over 1,000 budding scientists since 2008, addressing the continent's research capacity gap with strategic partnerships.

My name is Sam Kinyanjui. I'm the head of training and capacity building at the KEMRI Wellcome Research Programme. I'm also an Associate Professor at the Nuffield Department of Medicine.

My primary research interest is in understanding immunity to malaria, with a bid to inform the development of malaria vaccines. And it was during this time, I was working with really good scientists, looking at different aspects of the malaria parasite, and they were interested in very specific proteins, but many of them had actually not had contact with a malaria patient. For them, malaria was essentially this molecule or this parasite that they are working with; but it just struck me how much we needed to also have people from the places where the disease is prevalent, people who have contact and who have lived experiences in some cases of the disease leading their research into malaria. And that is how I started developing the interest in building research capacity, so that the centre of gravity for research on African problems is actually in Africa.

In 2008, I basically shifted my position to take up the role of head of training and capacity building at the KEMRI Wellcome. The approach we have used is that we have, over the last 12 years, established a comprehensive framework in which we have schemes for attracting young Africans to research, for example, attachments. We then provide high quality masters and PhD training, and then provide support for retention, either in Africa, or if not in Africa, in research that is relevant to Africa through transition funding and also through postdoc and mid-career research fellowships. And we focus really on three dimensions. We focus on generic skills training, for example, proposal writing or leadership. We also focus on the technical aspects of training, high quality, supervision, and mentorship, and opportunities for networking and collaboration. And finally, we also focus or emphasise on operational support, including providing the students with funding so that they are not struggling to focus on their studies.

At the risk of sounding modest, we are really proud of what we have achieved so far. We've trained over 1,000 people. As my last count, since 2008 we have trained about 128 PhD students. And at any one time, we have about 50. And indeed, the leadership of the program, including the incoming director, Professor Edwine Barasa, trained through this scheme. So, if you come to the program now, all the scientific leadership, essentially, are people who have trained through this pipeline.

There's still a huge gap in research capacity in Africa. Our original focus was first developing capacity for the program and so succession planning. We then moved to looking at the region, East African region. And now, we are working together with other collaborators in the continent to build research across the continent. And so, providing the wonderful resources that the programme has, thanks to funders like the Wellcome Trust, for training other regions that are not as well endowed. For example, we are collaborating with institutions in Niger and other countries in those regions that are also still in need of a greater capacity strengthening.

This interview was recorded in January 2024.

Sam Kinyanjui

Sam Kinyanjui, Associate Professor at the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi, Kenya, tells us about the Programme's achievements in building local research leadership.

Translational Medicine

From bench to bedside

Ultimately, medical research must translate into improved treatments for patients. Our researchers collaborate to develop better health care, improved quality of life, and enhanced preventative measures for all patients. Our findings in the laboratory are translated into changes in clinical practice, from bench to bedside.