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UNC Program in Nicaragua Expands Partnership with Addition of Doctoral Program

February 6, 2020
School of Medicine
Students in lab coats in lab setting

Students conducting resesarch in the lab at UNAN.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has expanded its partnership with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua-León (UNAN), which since 2003 has encompassed the exchange of research, faculty, and clinical learners, to now include the development of a doctoral program housed at UNAN.

The program, which offers a doctorate in Biomedical Sciences with mention in Infectious Diseases, aims to build capacity for infectious disease research in Nicaragua. Graduates of the program will be able to operate as independent scientists and apply for grants via the NIH and other sources to investigate such diseases within the country. Currently the program has eight enrollees.

Among other sources, the UNC Program in Nicaragua currently hosts six NIH awards. The university has a dedicated space on UNAN’s campus to facilitate trainings and research. The research collaboration has been a productive one, thus far producing over 30 peer-reviewed articles in publications such Lancet ID and Vaccine. Faculty from across the School of Medicine have participated in the Nicaragua program, from hosting clinical observations in neonatology and infectious diseases to a group of cardiologists who travel twice a year to perform valvular heart procedures at UNAN.

Sylvia Becker-Dreps and Steven Meshnick are co-directors of the research program from UNC and Samuel Vilchez is the director from UNAN. Becker-Dreps says one of the greatest takeaways from the program has been recognizing how needed it is. In recognition of this high need, the initiative is named D43 NEED, or Nicaragua Emerging & Endemic Disease Program.

“It’s incredible how grateful our Nicaraguan students are to have this opportunity, to have world-class scientists from UNC be their teachers,” Becker-Dreps said. “People [from UNC] are stepping up because they realize how necessary and meaningful it is.”

Becker-Dreps emphasizes the program is far from a one-way street. Along with trainees who travel to UNAN for valuable learning, faculty from UNC benefit greatly from the exchange of research, especially in analyzing diseases present in the region (such as Zika) that could one day pose a threat in the U.S. “It’s really been a win-win,” she said.

Aravinda de Silva who leads the program’s Advanced Immunology module, echoes that sentiment. “I am thrilled to be a part of the D43 project to strengthen docorate-level training in infectious disease research in Nicaragua,” he said. “The module I directed was an amazing experience for me. At short notice, several UNC and UNAN faculty members agreed to develop new content and teach.” De Silva says he looks forward to advising students and hosting them in his lab here at UNC.

The partnership has also sparked an interest in growing the pipeline of scientists in the region. Through events like an annual research symposium, advertised throughout Central America, the universities have brought together scientists from many different countries. De Silva commends the program for uniting scientists in the spirit of shared research and cooperation. “The D43 project is an example of how international partnerships can be used to democratize science so that all countries benefit from access to information and technology,” he said.

Cross-collaboration between the two universities will only continue to grow with the addition of the doctoral program. Classes will be taught by paired UNC and UNAN faculty, with research dissertation committees consisting of members from each school as well.

Read more on the School of Medicine’s website.

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