Partnering with a mentor by Jaameeta Kurji (PhD cand)

November 01, 2019

Rarely have I come across a more inspirational pair of colleagues. Professor Morankar has been with Jimma University for 15 years and Lakew Abebe for 13 years. Lakew is a former student of Professor Morankar and the pair have been working closely together for over a decade. Both are investigators on the cluster-randomized controlled trial we’re conducting in Jimma Zone, Ethiopia. Right from the start, their cordial relationship and mutual respect for one another was obvious. They’ve worked on five other projects together, the most recent one being a community capacity development project in an effort to prevent malaria. I had a chance to sit down with Professor Morankar and Lakew earlier this year during my last visit to Jimma and talk about their experiences on our trial.

Lakew has had to juggle to several positions over the past few years - local principal investigator (PI) and head of department – while simultaneously pursuing his PhD. He described that the most challenging part was the coordination of the intervention research project particularly in instances where institutional mechanisms are not aligned with project requirements. Managing trial finances was also a learning experience. He’s enjoyed the human resource management aspect of his role as PI. Motivating Jimma University PhD students involved in the project and encouraging them to develop to their full capacity has been particularly fulfilling for him.  

I am not surprised by this as many of the anecdotes shared during our chat reveal the painstaking mentoring that he received from Professor Morankar that he is now passing forward.  When asked what he found most useful in successfully managing the million-dollar trial, Lakew describes a detailed log with specific categories that he and Professor Morankar designed in Excel. He uses it to track his goals and time spent achieving specific milestones.  He started using the tool in 2014 and has been documenting process inputs on our trial since the get-go. The tool helps him reflect on his progress and that of his projects as well as identify more efficient ways to use his limited time each day.

I was curious to know what Lakew and Professor Morankar found most exciting about our project. Working with a diverse range of stakeholders towards a common goal was most satisfying for Professor Morankar who has an unwavering commitment to help the community. He spoke with quiet pride about the visible improvements in policy and practice that he has been observing over time. Changes may be small but they are movements in the right direction – he was delighted to report more visits to health facilities by district officials as well as a significant increase in supervision of community-based health extension workers. Partnering with policymakers on our trial has revived their engagement with both health facility staff as well as community structures. It has provided them with the opportunity to see where programs are falling short and where implementation challenges exist. Being able to facilitate this “…..eye opening experience…” is an important contribution that the trial has made and he’s proud to be a part of it.

Lakew agreed with Professor Morankar and added that this trial has provided an excellent chance to collaborate with researchers from University of Ottawa. The trial has been a useful platform to learn from shared experiences and to be exposed to a wide range of skills within the team of about 15 individuals. He has a huge smile on his face as he reminds me that it’s a pleasure to work with his mentor who continually inspires him to achieve more. Lakew also points out that partnering with policy makers has dramatically changed their relationship with them – before working together on this project, his e-mails would go unanswered for weeks. Now, however, he gets a call or an e-mail within just hours highlighting how much the policy makers value the project.

I end my chat with a question to them both about what they hope this project will achieve as we head towards the end of it. Lakew feels that the trial has generated much more data than he anticipated and that he is determined to ensure that the team synthesizes evidence that will be used for decision-making in the country. He is also a huge fan of the design which he refers to as the “beautiful cup”. Throughout his briefing sessions with the research team and data collectors he’s reminded them of the importance of collecting good quality data by explaining that in this design we have a beautiful cup with which we can collect milk (good quality data) or poison (bad quality data) that will be fed to the community (evidence for policy formulation and program design). He emphasized that the power to destroy or build the community lay with the research team charged with the responsibility of collecting data. I’ve enjoyed hearing his little motivation speech to the team during both the baseline and endline survey training sessions.

Professor Morankar builds on this by adding that he hopes that whatever change the results of this trial bring to Jimma spread around Ethiopia and other settings. He also hopes that whatever each individual associated with the trial learned will stay with them; and that they will share their skills and wisdom with all their current and future colleagues so that the benefits of their experience reach as many as possible.

I feel really pleased that I have had the honour of working with these two gentlemen, who are sincerely committed to making change and who have such generous and noble aspirations.

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