University of Michigan Visits AKU-EA​

The Aga Khan University's (AKU) connection to the University of Michigan (UMich) goes back to 2019 when a team led by Dr Amina Abubakar, Director, Institute of Human Development, and Dr Zul Merali, Founding Director, Brain and Mind Institute began collaborations with University of Michigan, focusing on improving quality of life in communities using Data and Data Science. This was the start of what is now the U54 DS-I grant titled UtiliZing health Information for Meaningful impact in East Africa through Data Science (UZIMA-DS), for which AKU and UMich received a $6.5M. This UZIMA grant has acted as a catalyst for the AKU - UMich partnership. In June 2021, AKU and UMich Medical School signed an MoU for academic and scientific cooperation, a partnership that will allow institutions to work on joint research projects; academic publications; innovative teaching models; course design; workshops; conferences; and student and faculty mobility amongst others.

Led by Dr Joseph C. Kolars, Director, Centre for Global Health Equity, Senior Associate Dean for Education and Global Initiatives, the ten-person U-M delegation visited AKU-EA from 7th – 11th February 2022. The UMich team was keen to learn about the impact AKU and AKDN had in East Africa, which their visit was planned around.

President Sulaiman Shahabuddin kicked off the visit with a meeting where he welcomed the delegation from the University of Michigan to Nairobi and appreciated the various projects that are being worked on in Kenya. He further spoke about how both universities have a shared target vision due to which he looks forward to co-developing and co-creating programmes together. He further expressed his priority areas in data science, AI, environment and sustainability, and inclusion of students in terms of gender and diversity. In reference to the UZIMA Grant, President Shahabuddin said, “I am told this grant and discussions over the last two years have happened virtually. This just goes to show what two partners with a shared vision can achieve!"

During their visit, the UMich team had the chance to meet with AKU faculty and staff and the UZIMA team, AKDN representatives, as well as government officials, diplomats, and other external partners. This was an important step in introducing UMich as a new and important partner for research, innovation, and outreach. Dr Anthony Ngugi, Associate Professor, Population Health, said about the partnership, “We were excited to have colleagues from UMich on the ground at AKU Nairobi and in our field sites. Since the start of this collaboration, we have formed close friendships, worked very closely, and achieved so much over a relatively short period. This partnership is strongly founded on our mutual passion for high-quality research and reciprocal learning.  I am very optimistic that together we will create a positive impact in the populations that we serve."

The visit has allowed for faculty and staff to identify new areas of common interest in the partnership including mental health, with emphasis on pregnant and post-partum women; data science; and creating a repository of samples across medical fields for better research capabilities. They further identified joint grant applications and potential funding areas, conversations which have started due to the visit. The UZIMA grant, work on which has started, will create a scalable and sustainable platform to apply novel approaches to data assimilation and advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning methods to serve as early warning systems for two critical health issues impacting young Africans: maternal-child health and mental health. About the UZIMA grant, Dr Amina Abubakar said, “The time allocated to UZIMA-DS proved to be quite impactful. The face-to-face meetings helped reaffirm that we really have found the right partners to work with. We have achieved clarity in terms of project goals, values, and work plans."

UMich and the AKU Medical College are beginning collaborations for student and faculty exchanges, including remote teaching and learning opportunities. In terms of research collaborations, focus is on infectious diseases including COVID-19; maternal and child health; chronic diseases including mental health; and public health with focus on socio-economic determinants of health, other areas of health, nursing, and other areas of medicine. The Graduate School of Media and Communications (GSMC) will begin training programmes for the correct ways to report healthcare and medical information. Significant movement was also made in talks between UMich and AKU's School of Nursing and Midwifery (SONAM). The collaboration will include research and grants collaboration on maternal-child health, mental health, infectious diseases, and non-communicable diseases. Reciprocally, UMich students will have opportunities to intern at AKU. The visit was concluded with a seminar titled Co-Designing for Impact: The Aga Khan University (AKU) and University of Michigan (U-M) Partnership

The final day of the University of Michigan visit included a field trip to Mombasa where the delegation had the opportunity to visit some field sites. Led by Dr Amina Abubakar, Dr Marlene Temmerman, and Dr Anthony Ngugi of AKU and were taken on a visit to the Mariakani Hospital where they were hosted by AKU's Centre met with the Kaloleni Sub-County Ministry of Health. They had the opportunity to tour the premises of the hospital, discuss AKU-PRECISE Mariakani facilities, and observe community dialogue and surveillance data dissemination. Dr Amrhein and Ms Karim-Haji led another group of Dr Kolars, and Dr Amy Conger to the Aga Khan Hospital, Mombasa. They were introduced to hospital staff followed by a presentation by Dr Zeenat Sulaiman, Regional CEO of AKHS, EA, after which they left the Hospital for the Academy.  

The ongoing collaborative opportunities with global partner universities will allow AKU to build a repository of useable data to better benefit the Kenyan region. This will include building data platforms for surveillance; better infrastructure for data collection in that part of the world. The data will allow AKU to make informed decisions, open research pathways, and policy interventions that are focused on bettering healthcare infrastructure in East Africa.