DGHI Professor Returns “Home” to South Africa as Faculty in Residence

Published December 12, 2017

Lauren Franz, Virginia Blaser, Petrus de Vries

DGHI assistant professor Lauren Franz (left) and Petrus de Vries of UCT (right) met with U.S. Consul General Virginia Blaser (center) to discuss U.S.-South African collaboration in child and adolescent mental health.

Having been born and raised in South Africa, Lauren Franz jumped at the opportunity to return to her home country with her husband and two children for a full year through the Duke Global Health Institute’s Faculty in Residence (FIR) program. 

Over the last several years, Franz, an assistant professor of psychiatry and global health, has been helping to build DGHI’s priority partnership with faculty members at the University of Cape Town (UCT), which centers around child and adolescent mental health. Participating in the FIR program has helped Franz advance her research while also strengthening DGHI’s collaboration with UCT. 

Program Benefits Faculty Member and Partnership

The FIR program is designed to support the career development of a junior DGHI faculty member and facilitate and expand activities in a DGHI priority partnership location. The selected faculty member also has the opportunity to deeply examine local challenges and capacity and serve as a mentor for one or more Master of Science in Global Health students during their fieldwork experience. 

Franz was inspired to apply for the program because she wanted to better understand the child and adolescent mental health landscape in Cape Town. She also wanted to explore how she and her Duke colleagues could work with UCT to address the challenges in this area. 

She sees the FIR program as another critical step in her path toward addressing the gaps in mental health care that she first encountered during her medical training at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, internship in Namibia and community service in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. “Throughout my career, I’ve been extremely methodical and purposeful in gaining the skills and experience I need to begin to fill those gaps,” she reflected. “But I know I can’t do this work alone—it requires infrastructure, support and collaboration with global partners.” And while technology helps enable these kinds of connections even at a distance, there’s nothing like being onsite long-term to build key relationships, understand local health systems and assess community needs. 

Franz Is Juggling Multiple Projects in South Africa

During her year-long residence, which began in July, Franz is dividing her time between several projects. She’s currently in her third year of a five-year career development (K01) award from the National Institutes of Mental Health, in which she’s “trying to figure out how to take an evidence-based early intervention for autism that was developed in one setting and adapt it for sustainable implementation in a different, low resource setting.”

Given the scarcity of trained mental health professionals in the public sector in Cape Town, Franz and her colleagues are researching ways to simplify this complex intervention and train non-specialists to deliver it effectively. 

“Being here on the ground has helped me accelerate the training of the local supervisors in this intervention model,” Franz reflected. “I’m also getting a good sense of where the intervention can fit in existing platforms of care.”

In addition to her autism research, Franz is also helping to facilitate training for two UCT clinicians in parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) for young children with disruptive behaviors. Her former Duke colleague Rhea Chase (now the director of early childhood programs at Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston) is leading the training, and Eve Puffer, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience and global health, is part of the research team assessing intervention’s effectiveness. 

And earlier this fall, Franz was on the scientific organizing committee of the Regional International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa. As one of four Duke presenters at the conference, Franz led a workshop on interventions for autism across the lifespan, spoke in a symposium on early autism intervention in Africa and chaired a presentation in which conference co-chairs discussed autism in Africa.

South African Partner Provides Outstanding Mentorship for Franz

For Franz, one of the highlights of the FIR program is the onsite mentorship of Petrus de Vries, the academic head of child and adolescent psychiatry at UCT, the founder of the Center for Autism Research in Africa and one of DGHI’s primary partners in South Africa. 

Franz met de Vries at a consultation on autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disorders at the WHO Headquarters in 2013, and they’ve been working together ever since. De Vries, the Sue Struengmann Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UCT, is now her co-principal investigator on her career development grant and the PCIT project. “Petrus is a great partner because he provides the support, network and infrastructure to allow for the capacity building that is integral to the work we’re doing,” noted Franz. 

Franz Hopes to Apply Lessons Learned in South Africa to the U.S.

According to Franz, her research in South Africa will translate effectively to communities in the U.S. with high levels of economic and health disparities.

“This approach actually lines up well with community dissemination efforts in the U.S. because many American communities also lack the mental health specialists to meet the local needs,” Franz said. “We’re using a lot of the same materials and piloting some of the same training materials that we’d use in the U.S.”

Demonstrating that non-specialists can be trained to deliver complex interventions and get positive results, Franz says, would move the field of autism forward across the globe. “The simpler we can package these types of interventions while maintaining effectiveness,” she said, “the greater the community impact will be, regardless of where we’re working.”

Franz will be based in South Africa through July 2018. Learn more about her work.

Franz’s Faculty in Residence program was co-funded by Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development and DGHI’s Hubert-Yeargan Center for Global HealthGlobal Mental Health Initiative and priority partnership support funds.

The Faculty in Residence program is designed to support the career development of a junior DGHI faculty member and facilitate and expand activities in a DGHI priority partnership location.