20 Feb Something BIG is changing at AIGHD
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” – African Proverb
It was with this sentiment in mind that Frank Cobelens began his work as Chair of the Executive Board of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development in 2016. “We want to go far and expand. It is the only way to be fit for the future”. From the start of his time at AIGHD, Frank understood the impact that global health experts, and specifically global health expertise within Amsterdam, could have on the world.
Over the years, Frank and the executive board have made strides in connecting interdisciplinary researchers at AIGHD. However, as we continue down the path of growth and expansion, we make way for a new governance structure.
From 1 March 2023, AIGHD will welcome a new Board of Directors. This means that we will also say farewell to Frank and the current executive board (don’t worry, they’ll still stay on as Senior Fellow researchers at AIGHD).
Before stepping down, however, Frank shared his thoughts on his time at AIGHD, his vision for the future of global health in Amsterdam, and some of his proudest moments as director of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development.
How have you seen AIGHD evolve over the past 7 years in your time as Chair?
My philosophy has always been that Amsterdam can and should sustain a large and impactful global health institute given the expertise and networks that are here within the universities, but you have to mobilize them to make mass critical. I firmly believe that collaboration among disciplines is the way forward in global health. Therefore, bringing together the best researchers with global health expertise from the various disciplines is what we [AIGHD] have been trying to do over the last seven years in several ways.
I think the real change over the years has been that AIGHD is now seen as an organization that researchers from the two Amsterdam universities can take ownership of. This has been essential for our vision of interdisciplinarity. Joep Lange had already started this, and we have carried it forward. Over the years, this interdisciplinarity has been much more ingrained in the fabric of AIGHD. It is why researchers want to work with us and why they bring their research ideas to our institute.
What do you think makes AIGHD special as a Global Health Research Institute?
There are many people and organizations that talk about interdisciplinarity but there are few who really do the heavy lifting to make it work, and I think that is what we have been doing. We really try to understand the language, constructs, and foundations of each other’s disciplines to discover how we can jointly address global health problems in a meaningful way. And we take that beyond the usual suspects of biomedical disciplines. The fact that we have legal scholars among our fellows, for example, is something that makes us quite unique.
Additionally, we are a small and flexible organization, so compared to larger global health institutes, we can bypass a lot of institutional sluggishness and more easily adapt to changing conditions, for example in research funding. I think the way that we work with our partners in LMICs also makes us rather special. We really try to ensure mutual benefit in all of our collaborations, for example, many AIGHD PhD candidates are jointly supervised by both AIGHD fellows and our partners in LMICs. In many of our projects, building local research capacity is as important as the scientific outcomes.
What are you most proud of during your time as Chair of the Executive Board at AIGHD?
From early on during my time as Chair of the board, we wanted to pull in researchers and create this model with different varieties of fellows (researchers). But we were aware this required that AIGHD was regarded an attractive environment for these researchers which we needed to build with limited funding. So we built a really strong project management team, built further on business development, and built strong communications. This has taken time, but I am very proud of the team we now have at AIGHD.
We’ve also seen a huge growth in AIGHDs educational activities, specifically in research-based education. The Research Master Global Health that we teach in conjunction with the Athena Institute at Vrije University (VU) has become a flagship program where students get a solid grounding in mixed-methods global health research. We offer our students a broad range of internships in an interdisciplinary organization with a huge network that we have built with partner institutions. This is another thing I am really proud of.
Finally, I believe we have managed to put AIGHD on the map as a recognized brand in global health research, even though we are much smaller in terms of human and financial resources compared to many similar institutes elsewhere in Europe.
Can you tell us anything else about the new Board of Directors and what this change will look like?
The new board will continue implementing our strategy. There will no doubt be changes to this strategy, that is up to the new board. There will also be an academic council that will be the voice of our fellows.
I think we have chosen great people who are well equipped for the job. They are a very capable team with a lot of experience in the field of global health. They are very enthusiastic about taking on new challenges.
They come from different organizations that are relevant for our work so they will bring diverse experiences and expertise. I am really confident that this is the right decision, moving forward.
New people. New ideas. And an organizational structure that will be a better foundation for future growth.
Finally, what is next for you?
I will continue at AIGHD as a Senior Fellow and spend more time focusing on my research here and at Amsterdam UMC. I will continue teaching and supervising undergraduate and PhD students – which I really love doing. And I will continue combining that with advocacy for global health, in particular in my favorite field of research, poverty-related diseases.
We cannot wait to share more with you about our new board members!