Using epidemiological research to improve healthcare in Zimbabwe

Chido Dziva Chikwari is applying the skills gained on her MSc Epidemiology degree to coordinate a study to improve HIV care for children in Zimbabwe.
MSc Epidemiology graduate Chido Dziva Chikwari
"Studying via distance learning was ideal because I was able to pace my own learning.": Chido Dziva Chikwari
I know that the health sector of my country is a sphere that I am called to make a difference in, and knowing that always helped me get back to studying.

Why did you choose to study for the MSc Epidemiology by distance learni­ng with LSHTM?
I have always wanted to work in the health sector in Africa, particularly in my home country Zimbabwe. I knew I wanted to further my education to the master’s level but after my BSc at the Newcastle University, I decided to come back home and get some work experience. I started working on a large clinical trial (ZENITH study) in Harare under Dr Rashida Ferrand, a Clinical Epidemiologist at LSHTM. I immediately fell in love with the research components of the study. With her guidance it didn’t take long for me to decide on the MSc Epidemiology at LSHTM. I wanted to carry on working on the study and the distance learning programme offered through the University of London was an ideal arrangement.

What did you most enjoy about the programme?
Aside from the content of my MSc, I loved the flexibility of the distance learning programme. I started the Masters during a very hectic period of my life and the room to be able to take up as many or as few modules as I liked made such a positive difference.

In terms of the degree content, I enjoyed the statistical components the most surprisingly. I really didn’t think I would enjoy it because I have always been weary of numbers. Nonetheless, I ended up taking the advanced statistical methods module after I had fallen in love with all things statistics. I also enjoyed my final project because I was able to apply what I had learned to a real dataset. I was also working on data collected through the ZENITH study. It was very encouraging to use my MSc project to answer an important epidemiological question.

Could you tell us about your job and what it entails?
I am currently a study coordinator for an Implementation Science project in Zimbabwe called Bridging the Gap in HIV Testing and Care for Children in Zimbabwe (B-GAP Project). The aim of this project is to investigate a multi-component intervention aimed at improving uptake of HIV testing and engagement with HIV care among children aged 2 – 18 years. My job within the next three years is to design the study protocol and tools, to ensure effective and efficient overall daily running of all project activities in the selected districts and then conduct the data analysis and write up so that we can report all our findings to all the relevant bodies.

"I think I was very lucky in that the work I am currently doing directly applies to what I was taught in the MSc Epidemiology."

Is the MSc Epidemiology proving useful for this role?
I think I was very lucky in that the work I am currently doing directly applies to what I was taught in the MSc Epidemiology. An example of this is the first task I had to complete as part of my job; I had to develop the study protocol and in doing this I was able to apply everything I learnt in the core modules of my MSc. I used the statistical components of my degree to calculate the sample sizes required for B-GAP and will also draw from some of my other modules such as; Writing and Reviewing Epidemiological Papers and Epidemiology of Communicable diseases, later on when it comes to the implementation of the intervention and dissemination of our study findings.

How did you find the distance learning study method? Any tips for managing your time?
Distance learning was the perfect fit for me because I had always struggled to keep up with face to face learning. Studying via distance learning was ideal because I was able to pace my own learning. I could go through modules as slowly as I needed to and I was also able to get support from my tutors online whenever I needed it. I worked full time for the first year of my MSc and I also had a baby towards the end of that year.

One of the most important tips I can give is that you need to be organised. Early on in the year you need to get an understanding of the work that is required of you (you can also decide how many courses you want to take up that year). Do a workplan with check points along the way and set realistic deadlines for yourself. If you can partner up with someone who is doing the same modules as you, this is also helpful as you can keep each other on track.

"I think when you are doing something that you love it is easy to stay motivated."

What kept you motivated while you were studying?
I started the MSc because it was in a field that I am very passionate about. I think when you are doing something that you love it is easy to stay motivated. I know that the health sector of my country is a sphere that I am called to make a difference in, and knowing that always helped me get back to studying. I had daily reminders everywhere because I spent most of my time working in primary healthcare clinics in Harare while I was doing the Masters.

MSc Epidemiology graduate Chido Dziva ChikwariYou’re now doing a PhD at LSHTM. Could you tell me a bit more about this? 
My PhD experience has been very different from all my previous academic experiences. It has been challenging in most parts because it is so new. At the same time, it has also been very exciting because I have taken up a piece of work that is entirely my own and I have 4 years to make something of it. It is in a field I am passionate about, paediatric HIV and how communities can support children living with HIV. In several ways, my PhD topic is a run off of my MSc project. The MSc definitely equipped me with the necessary skills and knowledge base to embark on a PhD.

Looking further ahead, what are your career plans for the future?
Over the past 20 years the health sector in Zimbabwe has been crippled by deteriorating economic and political conditions. Epidemiological research is one sphere where I hope to continue to make contribution to, however, in the years to come I plan to step out and work more on health policy together with or within the Ministry of Health and Child Care. 

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