Sparking New Research Ideas, Collaborations in South Africa

Penn State faculty members in South Africa.

When Lori Francis was planning her trip to South Africa, she expected to return with research ideas and new partnerships with faculty members from the University of the Western Cape (UWC). After the whirlwind three-day trip to Cape Town, she arrived back at University Park with a lot more, including plans to go back—twice.

Dr. Francis, Associate Professor of Biobehavioral Health (BBH), joined a team of nine Penn State faculty members with a variety of interests on the overseas trek. A Level-1 grant from SSRI funded the trip, as did support from UWC.  The visit built on a long-standing relationship between Penn State and UWC and was designed to set the stage for prevention scientists from the two universities to join forces. The meet-and-greet-style gathering was another step toward solidifying that partnership.

“We took part in an exercise that was the equivalent of speed dating,” said Ed Smith, team leader and Director of the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center (PRC). “Faculty members get three to five minutes with each person from the other university to describe their research interests.”

The group was comprised of faculty members from the PRC as well as departments including BBH; Communication Arts and Sciences; Psychology; Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Management; and Health Policy and Administration. Participants came away with new ideas and potential partnerships. Dr. Smith said he hopes those ideas flourish into collaborative research projects.

Dr. Francis has already identified her takeaways and planned her next steps. She will return to Cape Town two more times in the next year. This fall, she will study the possibility of including UWC as a destination for students in BBH’s Global Health Minor Program. In spring 2015, she—along with Rhonda Belue, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Administration—will spend one month in Cape Town to develop relationships with faculty members in a number of departments at UWC.

“I have a keen interest in health promotion,” Dr. Francis said. “We can learn a lot from what they are doing very successfully in Cape Town. They have a huge community engagement focus…and we are trying to get there.”

Gaining access to and trust from community members is vital, and Francis said the researchers at UWC do this exceptionally well. “How do you inspire moms to become involved in your prevention programming?” Dr. Francis asked. “How do you achieve a presence in the community so you can work effectively with youth and families?”

One example Dr. Francis highlighted is the Mentor-Mother Program at a local non-profit organization called the Philani Centre, which educates thousands of mothers about child health and development. The program is focused on children who are undernourished. Mothers are asked to bring their children in for screenings, and program organizers provide guidance on ways to promote a child’s growth and healthy development. Dr. Francis, who studies childhood obesity in the United States, said that gaining a mother’s trust can be difficult, and she is excited to learn new ways of doing so with help from UWC faculty and local community members.

Not surprisingly, U.S. and South African cultures and circumstances differ in many ways, but Dr. Francis is confident that faculty members from the two universities can learn a lot from each other.

For example, UWC faculty members hope to expand the scope of their university’s HIV/AIDS Center. The center is a part of UWC’s education college and has many objectives, including contraceptive education and counseling. Director Joachim Jacobs wants to mirror the scope and success of Penn State’s Prevention Research Center, and he spoke with Dr. Smith about developing a broader agenda for his center’s work.

“As we were talking, Joachim suggested that it would be ideal for UWC to have a prevention research center with the breadth of what we do at Penn State,” Smith explained. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

The two thought this could be accomplished by setting up partnerships between the universities’ faculties—and the Prevention Science Collaborative was born.

The inaugural PSC meeting was a success. Participants made contacts, shared ideas, and developed relationships with fellow researchers who share the goals of health promotion and disease prevention—as well as learning from each other.


“This partnership is based on relationships,” Dr. Smith said. “It relies on one-on-one commitments to succeed. Three or four sparks ignited, and I hope they turn into something significant. That’s the best way I know for collaborations to evolve.”