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International Research Chairs

International Research Chairs

Research without borders

McMaster has a long tradition of research collaborations that span the globe.  The world’s rivers, lakes and estuaries have become our living laboratories and the health concerns of developing countries have become challenges met with the creation and application of our research knowledge.

In 2009, two of McMaster’s Canada Research Chairs, Chris Wood and John Lavis, were selected to undertake research projects partnered with counterparts in developing countries to tackle the issues of remediating and managing polluted ecosystems and  turning health research into policies that will improve lives the world over. Their expertise was recognized by the International Research Chairs Initiative (IRCI), a leading-edge program that is sponsored by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in collaboration with the Canada Research Chairs Program.

Biologist Chris Wood, Canada Research Chair in Environment and Health, is paired with Adalto Bianchini of Brazil to battle the increasing pollution in that country’s coastal areas. Wood and Bianchini have focussed on two bodies of water that are severely threatened by both population and industrial growth – the Patos Lagoon and Amazon estuaries. They have been assessing the extent of the pollution, the major causes, and the best strategy to manage and remediate these environments. From what they’ve learned at the Brazil site, they will determine what is transferable to the Hamilton Harbour cleanup in terms of both monitoring techniques and getting the ‘buy-in’ of stakeholders.

Bianchini, the IDRC Chair in Environmental Health and Management, first worked with Woods in 2000 when he spent a 13-month sabbatical visit in Wood’s McMaster lab. Their project utilizes their respective research strengths in biomarker analyses, toxicology and metal contamination, a collaboration that Woods acknowledges is unique, “both in terms of hard science and environmental management and in the complementarities of our expertise”.

The International Research Chairs Initiative also provides university students with unique training and fieldwork opportunities under the mentorship of the chairholders. Over the five years, eight Brazilian trainees will visit McMaster for up to 12 months and five Canadian trainees will visit the Federal University of Rio Grande in southern Brazil for up to six months. This intense, ongoing exchange of Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP) significantly increases the research capability of the group and enriches the project’s academic collaboration for research and education.

The team will receive up to $1 million over five years to address the key development challenge of advancing alternative approaches to guide industrial regulation, settlement and urban policies. While it’s a relatively short time frame, given the extent of their research program, Wood notes that “it took years to degrade these environments in both Brazil and Hamilton and we have only five years to work on management and remediation strategies, the key here is student training and capacity building. These HQP can continue the process long after the program is over.”

Education and capacity building is also at the core of the partnership between McMaster University and Makerere University. Dr. John Lavis, a professor in the department of clinical epidemiology & biostatistics, was the Canada Research Chair in Knowledge Transfer and Exchange when he partnered with Dr. Nelson Sewankambo, the Principal of the College of Health Sciences at Makerere University for a 41-country study of knowledge-translation platforms in low-and-middle-income countries.

Their project – also funded for $1million over five years – includes a student exchange that has featured a number of short two-to-five day courses in Africa for students involved in the partnership.  Research meetings have also provided the opportunity to build relationships with members of the team from the ten participating African countries, and laid the groundwork for their field experience in these countries.

As the IDRC Research Chair in Evidence-Informed Health Policies and Systems, Sewankambo’s research collaboration with Lavis will tackle the challenge of how to turn health research into policy by evaluating the knowledge-translation (KT) platforms that have been launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) in ten African countries.  Sewankambo is recognized as a global leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa and was one of the first scientists to publish data on AIDS in Africa. He is well acquainted with McMaster, having completing his MSc in clinical epidemiology here in 1989, returning in 2007 to receive an honorary doctorate of laws from the University in 2007.

Translating health research into action can mean the difference between good or bad health, but in Africa, the situation becomes particularly dire where ‘health’ often becomes an issue of life or death. Child survival rates, women continuing to die during pregnancy and child birth, deaths from AIDS continuing to rise – these and other health issues have very real barriers to overcome. While the conversion of research knowledge to policy has bolstered the effectiveness of health systems in countries such as Canada, the policymakers and stakeholders in the developing world may not value research evidence, or find it relevant to the issues they face in their country or simply find the statistics, reports and data too difficult to use.

The WHO knowledge transfer platforms are experimenting with efforts to address these challenges. The objective of Lavis’ research program is to evaluate the WHO-sponsored platforms to facilitate knowledge translation for the improved health in each of the ten countries.

“Whether it’s addressing the adherence to tuberculosis medications in Cameroon or the implications of male circumcision in Kenya as an HIV prevention strategy, we hope to address the top concerns in each of the ten countries,” says Lavis, who, up until this IRCI award has worked with turning research evidence into national policymaking for a single country at a time.  

Lavis describes the International Chairs as an initiative that has provided him with a “once in a lifetime opportunity to learn in real time how to support evidence-informed health policies and systems,” and notes that the IRCI will be a catalyst for innovation through the next generation of scholars that will benefit from the research partnership. Students from Canada will have the opportunity to do their field work in Africa, while students from Africa will be trained in their second year at McMaster.

 A total of eight research collaborations were funded by the International Research Chairs Initiative (IRCI) after a rigourous selection process that saw 104 teams from across Canada submit proposals. McMaster was the only university to be funded for two projects.

 “The partnership between IDRC and the Canada Research Chairs Program is a distinctly Canadian international initiative that brings the power of science and technology to bear on problems in the developing world, while creating unique research opportunities for Canadians,” said IDRC president David Malone.