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Vol. LXIV, No. 9
April 27, 2012

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Scientists Share Expertise Overseas

Togo West (l), former secretary of the Army and Veterans Affairs, addresses participants during the INRO 10-year anniversary celebration

Assisting embassies abroad are NIH’ers Dr. Ben Prickril and Dr. Lana Shekim.

Photos: Mike Miller

Whether working to improve disease diagnostics in Vietnam, enhance lab safety in Sierra Leone or encourage U.S. research collaborations with Morocco, a number of NIH scientists have been sharing their expertise with other countries through the Embassy Science Fellowship Program (ESFP).

Through the initiative, about 300 U.S. government scientists have been placed at embassies and consulates around the world for assignments lasting from 1 to 3 months, with 13 fellows coming from NIH. The effort is intended to facilitate and encourage bilateral cooperation and research on science and technology issues. It’s also a mechanism to advance U.S. research and development priorities, as well as foster relationships that benefit domestic technical agencies.

“This program provides incredible opportunities for NIH scientists to gain first-hand knowledge of global health issues,” said FIC director Dr. Roger Glass. “This is a wonderful way for us to share our wealth of knowledge with other countries, while building new relationships and networks that will speed research progress.”

Three NIH scientists are currently participating in the program. NCI international program officer Dr. Ben Prickril was posted to Ankara, Turkey to share information about issues related to cancer, biotechnology, human health and agriculture. His fellowship is intended to help stimulate discussion on cancer prevention topics related to agriculture.

Amman, Jordan is the destination for Dr. Lana Shekim, director of NIDCD’s voice and speech program. She is helping assess the country’s services for people with communication disorders and exploring opportunities for research collaborations between the U.S. and Jordan, as well as throughout the Middle East and North Africa region. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 1 billion people in the world—or 15 percent of Earth’s inhabitants—live with a disability. Disorders of communication, such as hearing loss and voice, speech and language disorders, represent a large portion of that number, with hearing loss alone affecting roughly 278 million people worldwide. Shekim, a fluent Arabic speaker, works with academicians, clinicians, health advocates and other non-governmental organizations to identify resources and programs that could help Jordan plan to strengthen its services for people with communication disorders.

Andrew Ryscavage
Andrew Ryscavage

Finally, Andrew Ryscavage, a technical laboratory manager at NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, will travel to Lisbon, Portugal to help leverage the country’s emerging talent in biotechnology. He will provide advice and training in the areas of bioprocesses, cell and tissue engineering and biomedical devices. The Portuguese biotechnology sector has experienced rapid growth over the past few years. A significant number of these companies are in the forefront of innovation and development and they support agricultural, environmental and gene-based bio-industries. However, the need for resources to sustain these companies after start-up is high and of critical importance to the health and welfare of the Portuguese people.  

Past NIH fellows include Dr. Louise Rosenbaum of NIAMS, who was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, Morocco in 2010. She says the program was eye-opening and offers a great opportunity to share expertise with other government officials and conduct a brief, high-impact project. “It’s also incredibly fun and satisfying, and expands the fellow’s and the NIH’s perspectives in positive and unexpected directions,” she observed.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jonathan Kagan of NIAID worked with the health team at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi in 2010 to assess clinical research capacity in Vietnam. Because Southeast Asia is the origin of many emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, an urgent need exists for clinical research to support the development of improved diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to detect, treat and prevent the spread of these microbial threats. Kagan’s project developed a reusable framework for evaluating clinical research capacity in-country and made practical recommendations for how such capacity can be enhanced to better address health issues in Vietnam and the region.

“The ESF Program is best suited to NIH staff with considerable management and policy experience beyond their scientific subject matter expertise,” said Kagan. He also suggested candidates possess “substantial experience working on research projects outside the U.S., including a sensitivity to other cultural norms and an openness to seeing and doing things differently.”

Dr. Christopher Taylor, also of NIAID, traveled to Freetown in Sierra Leone for his embassy fellowship in 2009, where he focused on addressing malnutrition, infectious disease and the lack of trained health care providers. He organized a scientific meeting to encourage the country’s investigators to strengthen scientific rigor, improve patient safety and enhance research capacity. It’s since grown into an annual symposium that includes sessions on grant-writing and laboratory safety. “As a result, there is now increased awareness of the impact of research and evidence- based approaches to health issues in Sierra Leone,” he said.

FIC has coordinated participation of NIH embassy fellows since 2005. The State Department’s Office of Science and Technology Cooperation manages the shared-cost program, whereby U.S. agencies supply personnel, travel costs and training expenses and the U.S. mission provides housing, office space, administrative support and in-country travel.

Applicants are matched with countries based on their areas of expertise and needs identified by the embassies. For more information, contact Tina Chung at NIHRecord Icon

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