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Gates Foundation awards funding to UB epidemiologist

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Fri, May 22nd 2020 11:55 am

Laura E. Smith will develop a decision-making tool that can plan more effective health campaigns in low- and middle-income countries

A University at Buffalo epidemiologist is one of 11 researchers from three countries who received grant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) initiative.

Laura E. Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology and environmental health in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, was awarded $100,000 from the Gates Foundation for the round 24 challenge called “Innovations for Improving the Impact of Health Campaigns.”

Grand Challenges is a family of initiatives fostering innovation to solve key global health and development problems. Each initiative is an experiment in the use of challenges to focus innovation on making an impact. Individual challenges address some of the same problems, but from differing perspectives.

The program is highly competitive: The foundation received 1,101 applications for this round and founded only 1% of them.

Smith’s project is titled “Systems Dynamics Modeling for Health Campaigns in Zimbabwe.” She will develop a decision-making tool that can plan more effective health campaigns in low- and middle-income countries by considering any competing interests of stakeholders.

“I am extremely excited about being selected for the GCE award, particularly because I prepared the application with my partners at the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health and Child Care based upon their input on what would be useful to the government,” Smith said.

“I believe policy-led research is often more impactful and sustainable, and I look forward to working on this interdisciplinary project including researchers, government and nongovernmental stakeholders,” she added.

For this round of funding, the Gates Foundation sought innovations in approaches, practices, or tools that dramatically improve the planning and microplanning, implementation/operations, and monitoring and evaluation that will lead to improved effectiveness of campaigns.

The foundation was particularly interested in novel approaches that draw on innovation from large-scale delivery models outside of the health sector, which may include interventions used in the private sector.

Health campaigns involve many different government and private stakeholders with differing interests, Smith noted. Her team will apply a systems dynamics modeling approach to two health campaigns for children under age 5 in Zimbabwe by holding group modeling workshops with a variety of stakeholders to identify perceived barriers and potential solutions.

These data will be combined with published data to develop a quantitative decision-making tool with a user-friendly interface that can be used by the different stakeholders to select the preferred campaign design.

Smith is collaborating with Charles Nicholson of Radboud University in the Netherlands and who has an adjunct appointment at Cornell University. Nicholson has spent his career focusing on participatory systems dynamics modeling to improve food security outcomes in low- and middle-income countries.

Other collaborators include the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health and Child Care and the Zimbabwean Food and Nutrition Council. Smith has been working with both of these government entities on other research projects since 2013.

“This is an excellent opportunity to expand those partnerships on policy-led research,” she said.

Smith’s project was also selected to participate in the World Food Program Innovation Accelerator. The boot camp will be held in July and includes many of the GCE awardees.

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