Meet the Researchers without Borders

27 January 2020 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Supplied. Read time >10 min.
The PhD candidates selected as the first cohort of the UCT–Bristol University Researchers without Borders programme: (back row, left to right) Kathleen Kehoe, Ryan Aylward, Kennedy Kipkoech; (middle row, left to right) Nina Abrahams, Shani de Beer; (front row, left to right) Tanja Gordon, Lucinda Tsunga, Bongai Munguni.
The PhD candidates selected as the first cohort of the UCT–Bristol University Researchers without Borders programme: (back row, left to right) Kathleen Kehoe, Ryan Aylward, Kennedy Kipkoech; (middle row, left to right) Nina Abrahams, Shani de Beer; (front row, left to right) Tanja Gordon, Lucinda Tsunga, Bongai Munguni.

Eight PhD candidates from across sub-Saharan Africa have been selected to participate in the inaugural Researchers without Borders programme. The programme – a collaboration between the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Bristol University in the United Kingdom – will see the students work on research projects that harness the strengths and capabilities of both institutions.

Described as a “profound collaboration” by UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, the Researchers without Borders PhD programme was launched in July last year.

In the run-up to the launch, UCT and Bristol University developed a framework agreement for operating co-tutored PhDs. Participants will be registered at and have supervisors and co-supervisors at both universities, spending almost equal amounts of time at each institution during the four-year, fully-funded scholarships.

 

“I get to conduct research that is relevant to my home country while being given the (financial) opportunity to travel, live in a new place, network and receive a dual degree.”

Eight PhD candidates from institutions across sub-Saharan Africa have been selected to form the first cohort. Initial support for the programme has come from the two universities, the Global Challenges Research Fund and the University of Bristol’s alumni community.

Nina Abrahams

Having completed her undergraduate and honours degrees in psychology and a master’s in public health at UCT, Abrahams sees the Researchers without Borders programme as an opportunity to expand both her academic and personal horizons.

“I get to conduct research that is relevant to my home country while being given the (financial) opportunity to travel, live in a new place, network and receive a dual degree,” she says.

Abrahams is three months into her PhD, which will evaluate a complex health intervention run by the Department of Health of the Western Cape, South Africa.

Ryan Aylward

After obtaining his bachelor’s of medicine and surgery from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and completing his internship and community service, Aylward found a job in internal medicine. It was during this time that he developed an interest in renal medicine and research.

 

“It is important to me to transfer what I’ve learnt with colleagues back home.”

His PhD will look at acute kidney injury and understanding the epidemiology of developing kidney failure, as well as the short- and long-term outcomes.

“I am most excited about being immersed in this research environment and being inspired,” he says. “It is important to me to transfer what I’ve learnt with colleagues back home.” Aylward adds that, “the experience has been incredible so far”.

Shani de Beer

“I think the programme title ‘Research without Borders’ speaks for itself,” comments De Beer, who recently completed a master’s degree in public health, specialising in epidemiology and biostatistics. Her PhD will examine the characteristics and risk factors for infectious disease hospital admissions in children by HIV-exposure status in the Western Cape, South Africa

She adds that a joint PhD of this nature provides early career researchers with an amazing opportunity to pursue their academic interests and advance the skills learned during their master’s degree. All of this while obtaining a PhD at not one but two world-renowned universities.

“Being part of a unique cohort of eight researchers on the same adventure is the cherry on the cake,” she says.

Tanja Gordon

It was while completing her honours degree at the University of Johannesburg that Gordon’s interest in health economics was first piqued. Following her honours, she was accepted for an internship at the Human Science Research Council and completed her master’s through UKZN while working there.

 

“It is one thing to read journals and papers, but it is a completely different thing to have a first-hand account.”

Gordon says that one of the most exciting prospects of the Researchers without Borders co-tutored programme is that she will get the opportunity to experience a different healthcare system in a developed country.

“It is one thing to read journals and papers, but it is a completely different thing to have a first-hand account,” she says.

Kathleen Kehoe

Pursuing part of her postgraduate studies at an institution abroad had always been one of Kehoe’s dreams. So when she heard about the Researchers without Borders programme, she felt it would be the best of both worlds for her as she is passionate about public health, especially in South Africa.

After she completed her master’s in public health in epidemiology and biostatistics in 2018, Kehoe decided to take a break from studying. “I had studied for so long and was not sure if I wanted to do a PhD,” she says. “But then I found out about this amazing opportunity to learn from two prestigious universities.”

 

“I no longer need to hustle for fees or to read hungry while thinking of how I will pay for my expenses. The scholarship is helping me to focus on my studies.”

Kehoe has just started working on her PhD, which will look at the burden and causes of ongoing paediatric infectious disease morbidity and mortality in children in the Western Cape, South Africa.

Kennedy Kipkoech

A prayer answered and a dream come true. This is how Kipkoech, who grew up in Kenya and completed his previous studies at Maseno and Moi Universities, describes being selected for the Researchers without Borders programme.

He kicked off his PhD earlier this year, starting his Researchers without Borders journey in Bristol Medical School’s Department of Population Health Sciences.

For his PhD, he will use an epidemiological and mathematical modelling approach to quantify the burden of HIV and hepatitis C among people who inject drugs in three cities in South Africa. “I will combine this with an economic modelling approach to identify optimal prevention strategies for HIV and hepatitis C among people who inject drugs in South Africa,” he says.

Bongai Munguni

For Munguni, the road to a PhD was anything but easy. Growing up in rural Mozambique, her family did not have the funds to send her to secondary school. So, she applied for a job at a tea plantation in Zimbabwe that offered ‘earn-and-learn’ opportunities.

“We plucked tea leaves from 6 am to midday and attended school from 1 pm to 7 pm,” she recalls. “Combining school and work was very tough, but it was good, as it offered a means to an education for those who couldn’t afford normal schools.”

After completing high school, Munguni enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Zimbabwe where she also did her master’s degree.

 

“I am excited to do a joint PhD programme and to learn research methods at two prestigious universities.”

“When I received the email that I was selected for the Researchers without Borders PhD programme I was overjoyed,” she says. “I no longer need to hustle for fees or to read hungry while thinking of how I will pay for my expenses. The scholarship is helping me to focus on my studies.”

Lucinda Tsunga

Combining her bachelor’s degree in human physiology, genetics and psychology with an honours degree in psychology – both of which were obtained at the University of Pretoria, South Africa – has allowed Tsunga to carve out a niche for herself in the field of neuropsychology.

“I am excited to do a joint PhD programme and to learn research methods at two prestigious universities,” she says. “I’m also honoured to be part of the group pioneering such a great project.”

Her PhD will examine developmental outcomes in the Drankenstein Child Health Study in the Western Cape, South Africa.

Tsunga adds that being given the opportunity to study abroad is a dream come true and she looks forward to travelling and exploring a new country.  


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