By Kristi Post and Courtney White, GINGER Program
Corie Lok, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
As one of only about 100 psychiatrists in Kenya (a country of 53 million people), Dr. Felicita Asha Omari has worked for years in both the mental health and child and adolescent health departments at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, Kenya. She often wondered why some children suffered developmental health problems while others didn’t, even if they grew up in similar environments. For Dr. Jackline Mmochi, also a psychiatrist in Kenya, she wanted to know more about the molecular causes of the mental illnesses she was treating in her patients.
This desire for deeper insights has inspired Omari, Mmochi, and 22 other clinicians and early-career scientists to date in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda to join a neuropsychiatric genetics training program called the Global Initiative for Neuropsychiatric Genetics Education in Research (GINGER). This project, which aims to increase the number of neuropsychiatric geneticists working globally, currently involves researchers at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, Moi University and the KEMRI | Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya, Makerere University in Uganda, the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute. Led by assistant professor Dr. Lori Chibnik at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, GINGER hopes that by providing research skills training in this field, recent advances in neuropsychiatric genetics will be available to all populations, and the current massive research and treatment gaps in neuropsychiatric genetics that exist globally will narrow.
GINGER runs alongside NeuroGAP-Psychosis, a research project currently carrying out the largest study of neuropsychiatric genetics ever conducted in Africa. Skills GINGER Fellows learn in the program prepare them to take part in analyzing NeuroGAP-Psychosis data and to subsequently push the research forward once the project is complete.
A number of the GINGER Research Fellows come from clinical backgrounds and for many, this may be the first time engaging in research. Reflecting on her time in the GINGER program, Omari, said that, “Being able to work with genetics data makes me feel very empowered, because then I'm not just a clinician, I'm a clinician who understands the data, and my clinical practice is based on that data.” Another member of the first class of fellows, Dr. Allan Kalungi, hopes to be one of the first neuropsychiatric genetics researchers in his home country of Uganda. For Mmochi, her motivation was to be able to help others in her country better understand mental illness. She noted that, “Kenya is a country where we have a cultural perception of what causes mental illness. We are still struggling to convince people that this is a medical illness like any other, and there are treatments for it, and the treatments can work. I think studying genetics is the way forward to trying to unravel this mystery around the mind. If we don't do that, then we can never bring science to mental illness.”
Mmochi, Omari, and Kalungi, spoke with GINGER’s partner and sponsoring organization, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, about what their training means for them and for African biomedical research. Hear what they have to say:
Dr. Felicita (Asha) Omari speaks about ensuring sustainability in global research and the joint efforts of NeuroGAP-Psychosis and GINGER.
Dr. Allan Kalungi, former GINGER Research Fellow and recent Brain and Behavior Research Foundation Young Investigator grant recipient, speaks about the GINGER program’s impact.
Kenyan psychiatrist, Dr. Jackline Mmochi, discusses beliefs surrounding mental illness in Kenya and the importance of integrating genetics research in fighting stigma.
GINGER also invests in collaborating institutions by co-hosting research skills workshops at each institution that target graduate students, research assistants, faculty, and project managers. All aspects of the GINGER curriculum are developed with input from senior faculty leaders in East and South Africa, as well as partners at the Harvard-Chan School and the Broad Institute, and are constantly adapted and tailored to both the current needs of the GINGER Research Fellows and each institution's priorities. Since the program’s inception, more than 77 people across the globe have taken part in teaching and curriculum development.
Beginning with the inaugural cohort in 2017, GINGER has trained 17 fellows - including Omari, Mmochi, and Kalungi - from four African countries; another seven started the program this year. Programmatically, GINGER has taught more than 260 hours of curriculum at collaborating research skills trainings and reached over 230 individuals. The GINGER Fellows have taken part in more than 140 hours of virtual classrooms and 160 hours of training at in-person workshops.
If you have questions about the GINGER program or are interested in becoming involved with GINGER’s teaching efforts, please contact email@example.com or email GINGER’s Program Director Kristi Post at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kristi Post is the Program Director of the GINGER Program based at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Broad Institute.
Courtney White is the Program Coordinator for GINGER.
Corie Lok is a Managing Editor at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
This article was adapted from a story originally published by the Broad Institute or MIT and Harvard. To learn more about the GINGER program as well as the NeuroGAP-Psychosis research project, please visit the GINGER and NeuroGAP-Psychosis websites.