UNC 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 PhD program housed at UNAN.

The program, which offers a PhD 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.

Classroom setting at UNAN
Classroom setting at UNAN

Sylvia Becker-Dreps, MD, MPH, and Steven Meshnick, MD, PhD, are co-directors of the research program from UNC and Samuel Vilchez, PhD 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, PhD, MPH, who leads the program’s Advanced Immunology module, echoes that sentiment. “I am thrilled to be a part of the D43 project to strengthen PhD-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.

Students conducting research in the lab at UNAN
Students conducting research in the lab at UNAN

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 PhD program. Classes will be taught by paired UNC and UNAN faculty, with research dissertation committees consisting of members from each school as well.

The addition of the PhD program is an exciting step for the UNC-UNAN partnership and has already paved the way for UNAN to add other PhD Programs in Global Health and Occupational Health. Faculty and researchers from both institutions are looking forward to what further progress can be made in training new scientists and facilitating vital research on various diseases within the region.

“We’re not only going there and doing research,” said Becker-Dreps. “It’s an exchange of knowledge.”

UNC faculty, trainees and staff recently participating in the PhD program are Sylvia Becker-Dreps, MD, MPH, Nadja Vielot, PhD, Steven Meshnick, MD, PhD, Aravinda de Silva, PhD, Ralph Baric, PhD, Helen Lazear, PhD, Nilu Goonatileke, PhD, Laura White, PhD, Maria Abad Fernandez, PhD, Michael Emch, PhD, Tania Desrosiers, PhD, Andrea Azcarate-Peril, PhD, Tania Caravella, MPH, Kathryn Salisbury, MPH, Natalie Bowman, MD, MPH, Annie Green Howard, PhD, Victor Silva Ritter, PhD candidate and Kate Brandt, PhD candidate.