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Connected to Africa: Prof Taryn Young champions public healthcare
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing
Published: 26/05/2023

The institutional theme at Stellenbosch University (SU) for May this year is “Connected to Africa" and on 25 May we celebrate Africa Day with the rest of the world. Africa Day is the annual commemoration of the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity on 25 May 1963. SU has nurtured relationships with many institutions in other African countries over the past decades and our academics are collaborating with top scientists on the continent. In this series, we showcase a few of the SU academics who epitomise academic excellence through a meaningful footprint in the African context.  

Since joining Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) in 2008, Prof Taryn Young has excelled in a range of fields – from research to teaching to informing health policy and practices. Young's area of specialisation is epidemiology, and includes extensive research on HIV/Aids, sexually transmitted infections, and public health. In this capacity she's overseen various initiatives and research projects that impact on evidence-based healthcare (EBHC) in Africa.​

Can you tell us about your journey to become a leader in EBHC, and how you became passionate about this field?

After qualifying as a medical doctor, I did clinical work, but something was missing. I then decided to specialise in public health. I knew I was in the right place since the first year of training, especially after learning about systematic reviews and EBHC.  

Could you describe a particularly memorable or exciting project or finding from your career so far?

A few years ago, we implemented a two-year project to pilot a structured approach linking  researchers with policymakers (“buddying") to increase demand and uptake of systematic review evidence. Buddying was applied to six policymaker-driven questions. Researchers knew little about policymaking and its broader information needs and considerations beyond research. Policymakers liked the contact with researchers, saying it opened a door and helped them structure time in their diaries to participate. Both researchers and policymakers noted that without the structured approach of the project, this dialogue would not have happened. Building relationships took time, commitment, and flexibility from both sides. 

What are some of the unique challenges that African countries face when it comes to implementing evidence-based policies and practices, and how do you address these challenges?

Various factors impact on the flow of evidence from research to policy to implementation. A key element is the conducting of robust, regionally relevant research addressing priority health problems. One also needs to look at the totality of the research and that is where evidence synthesis, for example systematic reviews, are well-recognised as good evidence sources and the efficiency of their use in policymaking have been argued extensively. 

To increase the uptake of research evidence in healthcare policy and practice, interpersonal relationships and communication between research users and producers are key. Furthermore, capacity development initiatives play key roles to support both the conducting and use of research evidence – especially equipping the next generation of healthcare practitioners and managers, policymakers, and researchers to be critical thinkers and lifelong learners. 

Above all, working together, sharing best practices and lessons learnt, minimizing unnecessary duplication, and fostering equitable partnerships will help us to make progress in our quest to advance health and healthcare in the African region.  

Can you describe some of the collaborations that you have been involved in with other institutions and organisations, and how these collaborations have advanced the field of EBHC in Africa?

Collaboration is at the heart of advancing evidence-based decision-making. Healthcare practitioners and managers, policymakers, researchers, media, the public – the list goes on – we all need to work together in respectful equitable partnerships to make a difference. A few examples from my side: 

The Covid-19 pandemic required swift action to inform practices. I linked internationally with like-minded scientists in the Covid-19 evidence network to support decision-making (COVID-END), to conduct, make available and update relevant synthesis on Covid-19 prevention and treatment strategies while reducing duplication. I co-chaired the Synthesizing Working Group including contributors from Australia, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, France, Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, Malaysia, Norway, South Africa, the UK, and the USA. 

I lead the coordination of the Research Evidence and Development Initiative (READ-It) project, which promotes evidence-based practice and policy – the focus being on conducting high-impact reviews which influence global and national guidelines and policies.

I support the development and implementation of training, mentoring and support for Cochrane Africa authors.

The Collaboration for Evidence-Based Healthcare and Public Health in Africa (CEBHA+), funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of the Research Networks for Health Innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa Funding, was a project involving Ethiopia, Germany, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa working together to establish long-term capacity and infrastructure for EBHC and public health in sub-Saharan Africa.

I engage with the media and have ongoing projects to foster engagement between journalists and researchers. For example, during the height of Covid, I teamed up with Bhekisisa and McGill University to increase knowledge and understanding of epidemiology concepts among journalists.

As the Head of the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the FMHS, what are some of the initiatives that you have spearheaded to promote research excellence and capacity-building?

To build the capacity to do and use research, I actively engage with fellow academics and contribute to regional initiatives to advance capacity – working towards sharing scarce resources. 

I also expanded student growth within the MSc Clinical Epidemiology programme, graduated over 150 graduates and over 60 students published in peer-reviewed journals.

I co-led the establishment of an MSc in biostatistics and recently a PhD in biostatistics and we secured funding from the USA's National Institutes of Health to support the programme implementation. We have regional partnerships and link with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to host our second-year students for a 3-month internship. We are especially keen to advance women in biostatistics ( 

All healthcare professionals should be good users of research. I provide leadership to enhance teaching and learning of EBHC at undergraduate level. This involves collaboration with clinical and non-clinical departments. The success of these initiatives has expanded linkages to other academic institutions and offered various opportunities. 

I'm also active in conducting research to inform scholarship in epidemiology, biostatistics and EBHC. To this end I have conducted research to inform how best to build capacity in epidemiology and biostatistics. 

You have authored over 150 academic articles and secured over R150 million in funding for SU. What are some of the key lessons you have learned about securing funding and publishing high-quality research?

It takes hard work, commitment, and time to make this happen. Without support from my family, a dedicated team who I work with, a network of collaborators and an enabling work environment this would not have been possible. 

As a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, what are some of the biggest challenges facing science in South Africa today, and how do you see these challenges being addressed?

We need relevant, rigorous, timely research to inform healthcare, and there are many influencing factors. In summary, we need to: 

  • focus on research priorities and avoid unnecessary duplication;
  • conduct research well and thus have built the capacity to enable this;
  • do transparent reporting of research;
  • use scarce resources well;
  • foster researcher-policymaker engagement to promote evidence-based policymaking, which cannot be sustained without dedicated time and resources; and
  • enable the research environment.

What advice do you have for young researchers and students who are interested in pursuing a career in EBHC, and how can they become more involved in this field?

They must connect and collaborate with others in the field; read systematic reviews; enrol for a course on EBHC and learn more about it and what it involves.

What do you enjoy most about working at SU? 

Working with the best team.  

What has been the proudest achievement of your life?

­My family. From an academic and work perspective, I have gone from small-town girl in the Boland to distinguished professor and I received the Chancellor's Award in 2022 in recognition of my continued contributions to excellence. For me, these awards are recognition, honour and thanks to all the role models on my journey. My biggest inspiration was my mum.

As Madiba put it: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead."

Finally, tell us something exciting or interesting about yourself that few people would expect?  

I love dancing and listening to loud music.