DRILL: Developing Research Innovation, Localisation, and Leadership in South Africa


Background to the UKZN Developing Research Innovation, Localisation and Leadership in South Africa (DRILL)

DRILL was awarded to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in 2015 to support a research training and induction programme for early career academics and health professional staff members, under the scientific areas of Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS), Mental Health, Health Professions’ Education, Health Research Ethics and Health Systems Research.

Early career academics and health professional staff members at UKZN and the KZN Department of Health include but are not limited to Lecturers, Senior Lecturers and Associate Professors, and health professionals working within the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health.

The goal of DRILL is to produce 20 high quality scientists skilled to lead socially valuable, locally relevant and culturally sensitive research programmes designed around the health challenges facing South Africa and KwaZulu-Natal in particular.

The objectives of DRILL are:

  1. To capacitate, train and produce by the end of 5 years, twenty world-class scientists in health including early career academics of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and health professional staff members of KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health (KZN DOH) in the fields of HIV/AIDS, Mental Health, Health Professions Education and Health Systems Strengthening
  2. To build the eligibility and increase the likelihood of retention of the 20 trained scientists at UKZN and KZN DOH resulting in a pool of highly skilled researchers who will be on an accelerated development track for academic leadership
  3. To develop skills of mentorship and supervision in the 20 DRILL Fellows to inspire, train and support other academics in research development and building communities of practice.

The principles underpinning the DRILL training programme:

  1.  Mentorship and support using a triad of DRILL Fellows, supervisors and mentors
  2. Development of research knowledge, skills and values
  3. Research leadership development, attainment of a National Research Foundation (NRF) rating and inclusion in the accelerated research career development track
  4. Building communities of practice to cultivate DRILL Fellow-led knowledge hubs
  5. Responsiveness to health priorities underpinned by the philosophy of social accountability, research integrity and excellence

Each of these scientific areas are led by one of the DRILL Principal Investigators:

  1. Mental Health: Dr Suvira Ramlall, Academic Leader: Registrars, UKZN; Clinical Head of Psychiatry at King Dinizulu Hospital, Durban, leads the mental health track together with Prof Jonathan Burns.
  2. HIV/AIDS: Prof Mosa Moshabela, Head of Rural Health, UKZN and Wellcome Trust Fellow.
  3. Health Professions’ Education: Professor Petra Brysiewicz, Professor in the Discipline of Nursing, School of Nursing and Public Health. Prof Brysiewicz is the Communicating PI of the DRILL grant
  4. Health Systems Strengthening: Professor Fatima Suleman, Associate Professor in Discipline of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Prince Claus Chair of Development and Equity for the theme Affordable (Bio)Therapeutics for Public Health (September 2016 to September 2018), Utrecht University, The Netherlands.
  5. Research Ethics: Professor Douglas Wassenaar, Professor of Psychology, College of Humanities, director of SARETI, UKZN.

The intention of the DRILL training programme is to contribute to staff development and succession planning programmes in academia and other governmental and non-governmental organizations that are involved in knowledge production.

DRILL PIs welcoming new cohort of fellows     (L to R) Prof Petra Brysiewicz, DRILL Communicating PI; Dr Suvira Ramlall, DRILL Co-PI; Prof Mosa Moshabela, Dean of School of Nursing and Public Health and DRILL Co-PI; Prof Fatima Suleman, DRILL Co-PI.

DRILL PIs with DRILL fellows at the Orientation Workshop


Year 1
August 2015 – July 2016:

On 25 August 2015, the DRILL grant was awarded to UKZN. During the first 6 months the team focused on developing policies, guidelines and operational systems to ensure successful recruitment and an efficient and effective training programme. The list of documents are outlined in the table on knowledge production at the end of this report. The DRILL Advisory Committee was established and will provide support to the DRILL Executive Committee.

Year 2
August 2016 – July 2017:

The first cohort of ten DRILL Fellows was selected and an orientation workshop was held in October 2016. All fellows in cohort 1 are early career academics and faculty at UKZN. A table listing the Cohort 1 fellows, their research projects and DRILL triad i.e. supervisor and mentor is found below. The training programme for the DRILL Fellows began in January 2017. A list of all the workshops can be found in the table on capacity building at the end of this report.

Year 3
August 2017 – July 2018
The second cohort of ten DRILL fellows was selected in July 2016 and an orientation workshop held in November 2019. Five fellows are early career academics and faculty at UKZN while the other five are health professionals employed within the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health who wish to pursue a career in research.  A Memorandum of Agreement has been signed with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health to ensure the DRILL fellows receive support and protected time for their research.  A table listing the Cohort 2 fellows, their research projects and DRILL triad i.e. supervisor and mentor is found in the table below.

There are 20 DRILL fellows in total. The table below outlines the PIs leading each scientific track and the number of fellows within each of these who are mentored by them.

Year 4
August 2018 – July 2019
The output of key deliverables from both cohorts as outlined in the grant application from both cohorts of DRILL fellows are found in the table below.

Other key highlights over the past year include:

NIH/Fogarty International Center Site visit

On 3rd August 2018, the D43 MEPI junior faculty training programme manager, Dr Flora Katz, visited the UKZN-DRILL site. Following presentations from fellows, a visit to a local health facility, the day ended with an exciting discussion with the fellows which highlighted the development of a community of practice among the group in the form of a Whatsapp group to provide academic, personal and professional support. Fellows from the different disciplines were now working on projects together. They were also identifying strengths in each other and using an interdisciplinary approach to research projects, grant applications and research publications. The more experienced and senior fellows were helping juniors in the supervision of students and development of their teaching portfolios. This community of practice was not explicitly planned as a DRILL objective but has led to progress among the fellows and has offered them protection from burn out and a safe space to grow and develop.

D43 MEPI Junior Faculty Research Training Annual Network Meeting

The second annual network meeting was held on 4th August 2018 at the Durban International Convention Centre, hosted by DRILL, funded by the Fogarty International Center and attended by 121 delegates from the 11 awardees in Africa. It was evident that the dynamics of capacity building awards such as this grant, needs to be documented as the lessons learned are valuable across countries and institutions.

The D43 awards have improved the visibility of the fellows and the institution itself. Other faculty from the institutions benefit from the training workshops funded by the grant and are motivated to achieve better outputs as a result. As a result of the support and skills attained, many of the junior faculty has been successful in national and international grant awards.

Mentorship has been identified as a core tenet of every programme but it was acknowledged that this needs to be strengthened including the establishment of a formal mentoring programme. It is key to ensure that the fellows are mentored by senior academics as this provides strategic direction to their development as research leaders.

African Forum for Research and Education in Health (AFREhealth) Symposium

The 2nd annual AFREhealth symposium was hosted by DRILL held at the Durban International Convention Centre from 6th – 8th August 2018. The theme for the symposium was: Towards Achieving Universal Health Coverage in Africa – Creating Synergies and Capacity through Education, Research and Quality Health Services. Professors Fatima Suleman and Mosa Moshabela were the chairs of the Local Organising and Scientific Committees respectively.

The symposium attracted 350 delegates from 88 institutions and 24 countries. All presentations, plenary recordings, photographs and abstract booklets can be found on the DRILL website at: http://drill.org.za/category/symposium/

Year 5 Activities
DRILL has taken in a 3rd cohort of 5 fellows and a summary is found in the table below.

Rural health conference 2019: The Rural Voice
DRILL co-hosted and was part of the local organising committee for the Rural health conference 2019 that aswas held at Kapenta Bay, Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal from 5th – 7th September 2019. Dr Saul Cobbing, one of the DRILL fellows was the chair of the Local Organising committee for the conference in 2019 and as part of DRILL’s strategy to capacitate health care professionals, DRILL provided scientific and logistic support to the conference.