A Biostat Course Taught Across the World – Empowering Students in Sub-Saharan Africa

Date: December 13, 2023 By: Nick Kolev

Dr. Ghebremichael’s course provides a unique learning opportunity for students and a way to develop the field of biostatistics in their own communities

Naledi Tapologo is a research assistant from Botswana with dreams of a long career in medical research. 

She said she thanked God when she saw an email in her inbox recently.

That email promoted a free Harvard biostatistics course taught by Ragon member Musie Ghebremichael, PhD, that instructs students in the R programming language and the fundamentals of biostatistics.

“I believed it would equip me with skills and open my understanding on how to draw conclusions about the characteristics of the subjects of study,” Tapologo said about the course. “It is a gateway to my love and passion for research studies.”

Giving Back to African Science

Kamange said she had already noticed that her country is often the site of research and trials, but rarely is the resulting data analyzed and studied within the country. This course is one way of beginning to address the problem. 

“Many studies are done here in Botswana which are being used to inform the world and our government,” she said. “But analysis knowledge is inadequate if not scarce. We are restricted due to a lack of knowledge on how to read and evaluate journal articles. So I have a dream of being a data analyst in my country, especially in medical/healthcare areas.”  

Statistics is a vital science in research, and even more so in health research — from morbidity rates of new diseases to risks of side effects from any given medication, biostatistics is a pervasive and vital skill within immunology and health research across the board.

Ragon member Musie Ghebremichael, PhD, has been teaching the biostatistics course for years

Ghebremichael is passionate about using that skill to train the next generation of African scientists. 

“Most research institutions, including ours, harvest a lot of data from Africa,” Ghebremichael said. “It’s then published in scientific journals which most of the participants or research staff do not have the access or the skill set to understand. And yet the findings are more relevant to them than anyone else.”

Ghebremichael said he has three main goals with this course — giving students the skills to understand research relevant to them and develop as researchers; building the scientific capacity within their regions; and improving the quality of research coming out of their local regions through the advancement of these skills.

“We contribute to these students’ future development as data analysts or graduate students in quantitative sciences,” Ghebremichael said. “But teaching them fundamental concepts of statistics including study design, study power, data integrity checks, and so on also greatly enhances the quality of our research.”

Young researcher Gorata Mbepe just completed her undergraduate biological sciences degree in 2022. Also from Botswana, Mbepe said she saw the course as a way to develop her knowledge of biostatistics for her professional career.

“I took this course when I got to the work space and realized that the examples we learned and the tools we applied in our undergraduate studies were not feasible for large data,” Mbepe said. “That’s why I decided to take this course.”

Creating a Sustainable Impact

The course has been previously taught by Ghebremichael. This year however, was the first time he offered it exclusively to African students from institutions affiliated with the Harvard University Center for AIDS Research (HU CFAR).

“I wanted to use this course to develop these students’ skills and capacity to make a real change,” he said. “A big problem with the mixed course was the knowledge gap. Previous students were graduate students, postdocs, and residents from Harvard, MIT, or MGH who had prior exposure and were 10,000 feet ahead of students who were just being introduced to biostatistics.”

According to the course description, it introduces the basic principles and applications of statistics as they are applied to problems in health research.The emphasis is on developing an understanding of the assumptions, limitations, practical considerations, and critical thinking in the use of statistical methods in health research.

“There are many user-friendly statistics software programs and some of them are free, like R,” Ghebremichael said. “Now they have the tools and some people are doing analysis, but they don’t yet know the fundamental concepts behind the analysis or if the statistical techniques they employ are appropriate for their data. We want to change that.”

Gloria Mayondi, a student originally from Zambia now working in Botswana, said there were many practical reasons she decided to take the course.

“I want to be able to design research studies, improve my data analysis, writing and presentation skills in order to positively impact health policies affecting my community,” Mayondi said. “I also want to use this knowledge to motivate, mentor and help upcoming young researchers in Africa, where these resources are scarce.”

Michael Kanyesigye

Student Michael Kanyesigye is a trained computer scientist from Uganda working as a data manager. He said he had taken workshops and short courses before, but found it harder to retain information compared to this semester-long course.

“Usually the impact of those workshops has not been all that sufficient for me to feel confident that I can handle an analysis project and work on a publication by myself,” he said. “So that’s why I chose to enroll in this course.”

He noted the course had developed his skills substantially, and acted as a great starting point for him to share this knowledge with his peers.

“I’m looking at the community where I live, and I realize these are skills that are limited in our setting,” Kanyesigye said. “So I look forward to growing capacity within my community, so that we can have a number of people who know biostatistics and can even author their own papers.”

Ghebremichael said he does his best to make himself available to students outside of the class and after the semester concludes — from offering guidance on papers to sharing potential opportunities. Even though the class is virtual, meeting student needs is a priority.

“His teaching style is really efficient because although it is virtual, it is interactive and this keeps me involved in the class and with what is being taught,” Mbepe noted. “I am usually not that involved in virtual classes but this one is different. He accommodates the needs of the entire class.”

Tapologo agreed, and said the format was incredibly helpful for the value that the course offers to students.

“I am always looking forward to my Thursday lessons,” she said. “The course is affordable and taught through a very good medium. It’s easy to learn if you are interested. Class materials, notes, and class exercises are always available online and on time. And Professor Ghebremichael is always reachable through email.”

Mayondi said for her the course was a great springboard to continue her education, which she hopes to share with her community.

“I do not claim to have mastered all biostatistics concepts,” she said, “but I will definitely come out more enlightened that I was before and I am excited and eager to share with others what I have learned and to help, in a little way, those who may need my help.” 

For Ghebremichael, he said it was most important for him to have a long-term impact with this course that would create a real change.

“We don’t want it to be like checking a box,” he said. “Rather we ask can we do something sustainable? Can it make an impact on these students or their studies? The goal is to make a long-term impact because we cannot grasp thinking one time only — it has to have sustainability.” 

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A Biostat Course Taught Across the World – Empowering Students in Sub-Saharan Africa

Dr. Ghebremichael’s course provides a unique learning opportunity for African students and a way to develop the field of biostatistics in their own communities