Interview with EPI-Biostat Fellow Dr Sarah Nyangu

In 2021, ten consortia received funding to train 151 highly skilled epidemiologists and biostatisticians across sub-Saharan Africa. This highly anticipated training programme, dubbed as the ‘EPI-Biostat Fellowship programme’, is supported by EDCTP and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) as part of its framework for public health workforce development. Six Fellows of the first cohort (through the ENTRANT consortium) recently completed their training and obtained their MSc in Epidemiology. We interviewed on of them: Dr Sarah Nyangu.

Congratulations on obtaining your MSc in Epidemiology! What were your hopes and expectations of this training course?

My hopes were that the programme was multi-disciplinary, offering me modules that were relevant to my research interests. Having access to high-quality teaching and the ability to work with not only teachers, but also research academics with global networks was priceless. I have made collaborative networks with people from different parts of the world as a result of this training. The work ethic of the lecturers, professors and tutors was remarkable. They made the learning environment so friendly – we were never made to feel silly for asking simple questions, and were always encouraged to express our views even when they were different from those of the teachers. There was always support throughout the programme, and a high rate of response to any questions asked either via email or the learning platforms.

We were offered unique summer project opportunities with many of the staff members, who were always willing to help students even if they were not directly supervising us.

I enjoyed the unique and diverse backgrounds of the students and the lecturers, and I learnt a lot from people with different professional backgrounds. I quickly identified friends who had a stronger background in statistics who helped me throughout the course. My statistical background was not very strong at the beginning, and one of the reasons why I took up epidemiology was because it had a significant amount of statistics, but also gave me a good balance with the other modules offered, such as epidemiology of infectious diseases, clinical trials, epidemiology in practice, among others. Epidemiology in practice gave us the skills to learn how to use the data we generate and how to communicate our findings effectively. In a nutshell, the course lived up to the expectations I had, and also in a way surpassed it because the skills I have learnt are invaluable.

“In a nutshell, the course lived up to the expectations I had, and also in a way surpassed it because the skills I have learnt are invaluable.”

How has the training added to your skills and experience as a study manager?

The training has significantly helped me to develop new skills, polish up old skills, and become more confident in my every day work. Through the ENTRANT fellowship, the EDCTP-funded programme that sponsored my MSc training course, I was placed in a research organisation in Zambia called Zambart where I am currently working as study manager under the Stop TB Partnership-funded project (TB REACH wave 10).

The training course in Epidemiology taught us how to write a project proposal, apply for study approvals, analyse data and communicate the findings effectively. As a result, the first thing I did in this role was to turn my MSc summer project into a manuscript for publication, develop the study protocol and have it submitted for approval, among many other duties. All these things I learnt through the course, and I am currently using every single skill wherever it is relevant.

“During the course I was introduced to mathematical modelling, which has now become a keen interest of mine, and I hope to pursue further studies in this field at a PhD level. ”

How do you hope to contribute to public health research and emergency response in Africa building on the skills acquired through this training?

I have demonstrated an interest in infectious diseases epidemiology throughout my medical career, but having a MSc degree has given me the confidence to pursue other areas of research in this field. The knowledge and expertise is vast in epidemiology, but I want to be able to conduct research that makes a difference and leads to policy change.

In my current role as study manager, we have worked closely with the National TB and Leprosy programme and we hope the TB REACH study generates enough evidence for policy change on use of new novel TB skin tests in the country. Contributing to public health research requires that one sustains collaborative networks and is transparent in their research work and that is what I hope to achieve locally, regionally and globally.

“One of the key things we learnt in the course, as a result of being in the middle of a pandemic, was pandemic preparedness, which is key in fighting future pandemics. ”

Being a part of the solution that puts up sustainable measures to avoid future reoccurrences of diseases, such as COVID-19, which has plagued the world and weakened our health systems, is of paramount importance to me. Preparedness demands constant vigilance and investment to keep up with public health threats as they evolve. As part of this preparedness, I will build on a strong foundation of lessons learnt through my training, previous emergency responses and learning from researchers with technical expertise.