Building a Global Research Network

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This column presents some considerations and best practices for finding time to produce scholarship in the form of a manuscript or presentation. 

I have been fortunate throughout my career to work with a series of excellent collaborators, who have each enhanced my work in many different ways. Over the last five years, I have had the distinct pleasure of working with an ever-expanding group of international collaborators, which has been an exceptionally enriching experience. The benefits of international collaboration are numerous, as it can provide exposure to different paradigms and perspectives that can enhance and advance one’s thinking about the problems we face and potential solutions to solve them. In addition, international work can provide opportunities to address health problems at a different time in their developmental history. For example, a large focus of my research is on the prevention and treatment of obesity in youth. Over the last several years, I have begun working with collaborators in China, where obesity is an emerging problem. By studying the etiology of childhood obesity in China, I have gained perspectives that have informed my work in other countries and cultures.

Assuming that I’ve convinced you to seek international collaborations for your own work, you might be wondering how to identify, develop, and nurture them. While I don’t profess to be an expert on global health, I have learned a few lessons over the years that can help you as you seek to build a global network of collaborators. A few ideas for developing the collaborations:

  • Seek out existing international research opportunities that you can join. There are a number of international workgroups that have data available to external collaborators after a brief application process. For example, I was fortunate to work with a large international team on a research paper using data from the International Children’s Accelerometry Database. This was a fantastic experience, which provided me access to scientists from around the world.
  • Attend international scientific meetings. Most fields have international meetings that are held in locations that rotate around the world. These can be great opportunities to meet scientists and practitioners from other countries with whom you might collaborate. For example, the International Society of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity has held meetings on three different continents in the last three years!
  • Explore the resources at your institution. Many universities have offices of global health or institutes focused on international topics. These offices can be excellent resources for identifying local and international collaborators and may have funds available for international travel or hosting of international scholars.
  • Network with colleagues (but be prepared to expand your scientific scope). You’d be surprised how many of your colleagues conduct international research, practice, or service. However, it may be a little out of your comfort zone. For example, I’ve been assisting a colleague of mine for the last year who is conducting exciting work in eastern Europe regarding the training of clinicians in the management of complicated child birth scenarios. While I know next to nothing about obstetrics, I have been able to contribute to the team as a statistician, evaluator, and psychometrician. This has allowed me to work with an international team tackling a massively important problem that I’d otherwise not have the opportunity to address.

Once you’ve established a collaboration, I would encourage you to visit the country where you’ve built your relationships, since there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings for building relationships. A few tips:

  • Learn as much about your host institution, city, and country as you can, especially the history, customs and culture. It can feel like homework, but you need to do it. You’ll be surprised how much knowing the history of a culture or region can benefit you during your day-to-day interactions with colleagues at your host institution. Similarly, learning customs in advance of your trip can prevent embarrassing moments or endear you to your hosts.
  • Try to learn some of the language if possible. Rosetta Stone has allowed me to communicate in small ways, but more importantly, it has helped me show my hosts that I am committed to the relationship and respectful of their culture.
  • Encourage a return visit for your host. If possible, arrange for your colleagues to visit your institution so that you can return the hospitality. While these visits can be expensive, many institutions have funds available to defray costs associated with hosting international scholars, or offer special housing at a discounted rate. These trips can allow you an opportunity to show off your city to your international colleagues and might foster the development of new ideas to explore together.
    Seek funding together when appropriate.
    Seeking funding with any colleague requires a good relationship, built on mutual trust. However, once you’ve built this with your international colleagues, I encourage you to seek funding together from national or international funding organizations. There are many foundations and governmental programs that will fund international work (such as the Fogarty International Center), and I encourage you to explore the opportunities they offer.

In summary, opportunities to engage in global health research and practice abound, providing life-changing experiences that can broaden and deepen your understanding of the world and the public health challenges other face. While considerable effort is required to make these opportunities a reality, the effort pales in comparison to the benefits one can receive from these experiences. I encourage you to seek opportunities to learn about and from others across the globe, as you and your work will never be the same afterwards.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

Read previous posts by this author: