Most of the topics for the bi-weekly conference calls the NPGH Fogarty Fellows participate in are research-related (such as “Tropical Disease and Neurology,”) but the theme for November’s talk was simply “Challenges and Joys.” As Joe Kolars, one of the Principle Investigators from the University of Michigan who led the call put it, this offered a “much-needed chance to take the nose off the grindstone, step back, and reflect on what’s working and what’s not.” Three to four months into their fellowship, most trainees were ready to do just that.

The most common challenge encountered by fellows was frustration over slow-moving research projects. Eleven months is the blink of an eye for bureaucracies and many trainees agreed they had had to modify their plans once they had a better understanding of local procedures and conditions in their study sites. Michael Mahero, a veterinarian working in Uganda, said meeting with some district officials really helped him understand how to help his work move through the approval process and find some “low-hanging fruit” to pick while waiting for everything to come together.

Despite the challenges that come with working in global health, the trainees were excited to share the joys of their fellowship, both personal and professional. Valerie Cortez came back from a month of field work in the Amazon awed by the diversity of butterflies and the beauty of the jungle. Anya Romanoff, who spent the first few months of her fellowship conducting a country-wide survey of breast cancer prevention practices, was happy to have found a warm reception and a permanent study site in Trujillo, Peru. The Thailand team and Uganda fellows felt refreshed from having shared dinners and each other’s company.

Joe Kolars reminded the trainees that dinners with each other or conversations with their mentors to bounce ideas around is one of the best ways to come up with solutions to problems. He remembered from his own early career not wanting to ask his mentors for logistical advice, feeling that it would be a sign of failure. Science is about much more than reagents though, and sometimes success requires good relationships and an understanding of how things work; which can be especially challenging in a foreign culture. Nevertheless, there are plenty of resources and people through the Fogarty network who are happy to help, and who have probably made it through similar struggles. The call ended with warm wishes for the holiday season, which for trainees living south of the equator, will certainly be warm!

by: Nikki Eller