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3 Questions with DGHI’s Associate Research Director John Bartlett

May 20, 2019

By Susan Gallagher

Ask John Bartlett what makes a strong international research partnership, and he’s quick to rattle off the keys to success: common interests and goals, personal and institutional commitment, trust, communication and continuity. And he would know—he’s spent the last 20+ years building and sustaining global partnerships, with a focus on his extensive collaborative research portfolio in Moshi, Tanzania, where he lives for several months of the year.

Bartlett, a professor of medicine and global health, has published hundreds of journal articles and seen thousands of patients since he came to Duke as a medical intern in 1981, but one of his greatest professional passions is his work with international partners.

As the associate research director at the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI), Bartlett has played a significant role in the development of the institute’s priority partnership network. We recently talked with him to learn more about the network, hear about a recent partner workshop and find out where he sees the network headed in the future. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

DGHI: We have 12 priority partnership locations across the world. How do we identify priority partnerships, and what does that mean for us and for our partners?

Bartlett: DGHI certainly has quite a few global partners. We started building our priority partner network about 10 years ago with partnerships in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Singapore and Haiti. The partnerships that are most robust and include research as well as teaching activities are eligible to become priority partnership locations. There’s a complex formula that weights different contributions, and the sites that have the highest scores are designated as priority partnership locations. 

This designation often comes with resources like financial support and access to pilot grants, faculty-in-residence awards and visiting scholar awards. 

And then in turn, DGHI also benefits from these partnerships through our partners’ intellectual contributions to research and education as well as the satisfaction of the peer-to-peer relationships we develop with our collaborators. These sites also provide opportunities for our students to have field research experiences around the world.

DGHI: Back in March, DGHI convened a regional partner workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. What were the goals of that workshop, and what were some outcomes?

Bartlett: The workshop included faculty and staff from our priority partnership sites in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa and was planned in collaboration with faculty across these sites. The themes were global mental health and maternal and child health research. 

We wanted to host the workshop in East Africa to make it more accessible to our partners and also to demonstrate the high value we place on our partnerships. We believe it’s important to get into the field and recognize the contributions of our African partners to our current and future research. 

One of the main goals was to have a participatory exchange of research ideas. We encouraged teams of researchers across partner sites to develop research proposals focused on global mental health and maternal and child health for potential DGHI pilot funding. A few weeks after the conference, we received six proposals, and we selected three. We see these projects as an opportunity to provide meaningful support to foster and strengthen partnerships, and we think these projects have strong prospects for eventually getting external funding. 

I’m particularly excited about one of the projects that’s focused on adolescent mental health. Adolescence is a difficult time for young people, and in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s often confounded by poverty and family structure that can be disrupted due to conflict, HIV/AIDS and trauma. This project will aim to combine data from databases across countries and sites to increase insights and support research in adolescent mental health. So for example, instead of having data on 10 to 20 suicides at a single institution, you’d be able to look at data for 100 or more suicides from across institutions, which gives you additional power to understand the circumstances associated with suicide and potentially how you can prevent it.

But in addition to these three promising collaborative research projects, I think another successful outcome was the spirit of cooperation and excitement I saw at the workshop. Each group had representation from almost all institutions, and people came up with great ideas about how to share opportunities, data and resources. It was quite fantastic to see. 

DGHI: How would you like to see the priority partnership network evolve?

Bartlett: An important observation out of the conference in Kenya was seeing the south-south connections—how our African partners became connected to each other and spontaneously started coming up with potential research ideas. I do think there’s great value in regional clusters, because in many cases, countries within a region share similar issues and cultural considerations. For example, at the workshop, people from different sites really connected with each other around common issues related to adolescent homelessness.

It was especially inspiring to see that a couple of the teams integrated training opportunities into their research proposals. It’s critically important to have a continuous flow of new researchers maturing and coming up through the ranks, so it was fantastic to see that happen organically. 

I tend to think of all of this as a great experiment. I haven’t seen any other university try to set up carefully coordinated networks of international partnerships, so I think it’s a totally open question: What’s the best approach to networks? Should they be global? Should they be regional? Should they be a combination? 

For now, though, our plan is to have a regional conference with Asian partners next year in Singapore, and we’ve started that planning process. 

Read about John Bartlett’s work.

Learn more about DGHI’s priority partnership locations.

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John Bartlett
John Bartlett

DGHI also benefits from these partnerships through our partners’ intellectual contributions to research and education as well as the satisfaction of the peer-to-peer relationships we develop with our collaborators.

John Bartlett, associate director of research

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