Workshop strengthens bonds between UChicago, African scholars

Despite accounting for 15 percent of the world’s population and one-quarter of its disease burden, Africa provides only about 2 percent of global research. However, as African nations and economies grow, so too has the opportunity for training and supporting new scientists, physicians, and institutions to work on local and international problems.

For decades, University of Chicago faculty have built professional partnerships with African scholars. But a UChicago workshop sou­­­­ght to weave those often-isolated strands together into thicker bonds, laying the groundwork for new initiatives that cross both disciplinary and geographic boundaries.

The Interdisciplinary Collaborations in Africa Workshop, held at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, convened a diverse community of physicians, computer scientists, biologists, philosophers, business and policy experts, and industry representatives from Chicago, Nigeria, and Ghana for a day of discussion and planning. Participants detailed existing research and education activities in Africa, explored unrealized opportunities for connecting scholars at UChicago and African institutions, and made important steps towards new projects and educational exchanges.

Workshop brainstorming sessions generated ideas for studying topics in Africa including sickle cell disease and aging, the health consequences of climate change and political instability, air quality, agriculture, and research ethics. Participants also proposed initiatives to expand computational and “big data” resources across the continent, bring more faculty members to teach courses at African institutions, and open up library resources to African students.

“If we want to promote health equity, we need to really see ourselves as part of a global community,” said Funmi Olopade, Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics, dean for global health, and organizer of the workshop. “That was really the idea behind that workshop, the big idea that science and humanities ought to be working globally on how we care about the problems of the bottom billion.”

Olopade—who attended medical school in Nigeria and now studies the genetics of breast cancer in populations of African ancestry—said that the workshop was important for coordinating across UChicago projects and expanding their scope and impact. For example, her husband Sola Olopade, Professor of Family Medicine and Medicine, conducts research on asthma and indoor pollution from cooking stoves that overlaps with Array of Things, a project using sensors to measure environmental factors such as air quality, and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), which could study the behavioral economics of encouraging the use of cleaner stoves.

At the workshop, funded by a grant from the UChicago Big Ideas Generator, new points of contact between research interests were revealed. James Robinson, a political economist and director of The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, grew interested in the public health toll of government crises and population displacement.

“It’s a terrific initiative to bring together scholars from all disciplines doing research on Africa at UChicago,” said Robinson, The Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict. “The Olopades see how health sits in a broad social and political context which you have to study holistically. I very much look forward to the collaboration.”

In other cases, talk turned to expanding already-existing partnerships by recruiting more UChicago faculty interested in working with African students and scholars. A collaboration with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, a network of institutions in South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, and Rwanda, sought more UChicago instructors to prepare modules on computer science, epidemiology, informatics, physics, statistics, or related fields for their master’s degree program.

The African Access Initiative, a partnership led by the non-profit organization BIO Ventures for Global Health, attended the workshop looking for new ways that UChicago scholars could help their mission of expanding healthcare infrastructure and access on the continent. New research on the economics of pharmaceutical markets in developing countries, such as the work of Pradeep Chintagunta at the Booth School of Business, could help drive effective strategy for the group.

“I thought it was a great idea to bring together folks with very diverse backgrounds and interests who nevertheless have a common theme in their research which is the focus on Africa,” said Chintagunta, the Joseph T. and Bernice S. Lewis Distinguished Service Professor of Marketing at Booth. “I now feel I can run my ideas and issues by my colleagues at the University more knowledgeable about the context than I am. After all that is what we are here to do – collaborating minds advancing knowledge by building on potentially competing ideas.”

But some of the highest impact next steps may be even simpler. Visiting scholars from the University of Ghana and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria said that a pressing need for their students and researchers is access to online resources, including virtual libraries and digital archives.

“I work in an African university where research outputs are limited due largely to the absence of resources for research, which limits our ability to keep pace with best practices in the international arena,” said Martin Odei Ajei, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Ghana. “So I found the idea of collaboration with African institutions and the concrete proposals for research paths that were made by the array of multidisciplinary expertise around the table most promising.”

Building off the success of this inaugural meeting, the organizers are working with the University of Chicago Center in Paris on planning a future workshop for African Francophone scholars and partners.

“We're hoping that more people will see these collaborations as a platform for us to begin to tackle big ideas that go beyond our borders,” Olopade said. “What we really want to do is have a two-way approach where our faculty engage on the continent and students from the continent partake of all the resources we have here that are truly amazing.”