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Prof Taryn Young: New head’s vision of Department of Global Health
Author: Tyrone August
Published: 07/07/2020

​Leadership takes many different forms. Some pursue individual excellence in order to lead by example; others prefer to focus on collaborative initiatives to build highly skilled teams. And then there are those who strive to employ both approaches simultaneously.

Prof Taryn Young, the newly appointed executive head of Stellenbosch University's Department of Global Health, falls into this innovative category.

“I am a firm believer in leading by example and striving for the Department to be one that fosters learning and research for impact," she states. “I feel that, as the head of the Department, I should be role-modelling what it is that we want to get done."

At the same time, Young also has much broader objectives: “When this position became available, it was like a natural next step to be able to continue with the growth of what we do [in the Department] to build capacity, to empower the next generation to be able to address the various health challenges we have. For me, it was the next step in being able to make a difference."

She is certainly well-placed to pursue these parallel objectives. Since joining the university's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in 2008, she has excelled in a range of fields – from research to teaching to informing health policy and practices.

Young's particular area of specialisation is epidemiology, and includes extensive research on HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections and public health. In recognition of her considerable expertise, she will remain head of the Department's Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and director of its Centre for Evidence-Based Health Care (CEBHC) in addition to her new position.

“I think it is very important to conduct the relevant research with impact," she declares. “And when we do that research, we must ensure that we do it using good quality methods, and deliver the research in a timely manner so it can inform guideline developments at WHO [World Health Organisation] level or at national level."

In this regard, Young is clearly leading by example. As a C1 National Research Foundation-rated scientist, she has authored or co-authored more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa and has just joined the South African National Health Research Committee.

Further afield, she is a member of various international advisory and technical committees, and recently joined the WHO Guideline Review Committee for a three-year term.

In addition to research, Young's other long-standing passion is skills development – “building and empowering the next generation". For her, she emphasises, empowerment and what she routinely describes as research for impact go together hand in hand.

“When we talk about global health within the Department, we talk about a field that is aiming to advance health equity," Young explains. “And we do that by working across disciplines and across sectors, and really fostering a strong collaborative approach to be able to tackle global problems.

“Now in order to do that, we need to build capacity. We are planning a variety of activities, including embedding global health learning for all undergraduates, so that when they graduate they can make a difference to global health in whatever career they will be pursuing. Furthermore, we are planning a number of postgraduate initiatives to build more advanced competencies linked to global health."

These objectives are in line with a five-year plan developed last year, when she was acting head of the Department while her predecessor, Prof Usuf Chikte, was on sabbatical. The Department's core principle – to advance heath equity by employing cross-disciplinary, inter-sectoral and collaborative approaches – underpins these objectives.

“We are not just working within the Department, but also across the Faculty, across all the other departments in the Faculty, and also outside the Faculty," Young adds. “We also work with various other stakeholders. For example, within Stellenbosch University we work with units at other campuses such as the psychology department and the Business School.

“Then we have a variety of collaborative projects outside the university, where we link with other academic institutions, whether in South Africa (like Wits University or the University of Cape Town) or overseas (for example, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine).

“We also work with our provincial and national departments of health, and we link with the WHO and other entities as well. Partnerships and collaborations are at the heart of what we're doing."

Young's new role as head of the Department – alongside her two other positions – will obviously place enormous demands on her time. Yet she is confident that there are more than sufficient skills and systems in place to support her: “Having a good and a strong team to work with makes it easier.

“We spent a lot of time over the past few years to work strongly as a team at the CEBHC and the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. So I can very comfortably delegate a lot of the activities or divide them up amongst the various team members.

“And I've been spending quite a bit of time – last year and this year – to make sure we have good systems and processes. That then allows one to have more time to provide leadership, venture into new areas and drive the implementation of the strategic plan."

Photo credit: Damien Schumann