On a warm, sunny Sunday morning I arrived in Antwerp, the second biggest city after Brussels in Belgium and my home to be for the next two months. More specifically, my new “home” is the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM). Coincidentally, I arrived on the 31st of July, and Belgium, a country in Europe, not a city as US presidential nominee Donald Trump mistakenly referred to it recently, is the 31st country to visit in my travels.
My ITM experience will bring a “three-continent blend”, after being a two-time fellow in the US, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the Knight science journalism fellowship ’08 and at Oklahoma State University as a food security fellow ’11.
There is so much you learn from such experiences as I elaborated here, the confidence and credentials elevate your career to another level but the lasting connections that you can fall back to are just something legendary.
I am at ITM as a journalist in residence which almost offers the same opportunities: meeting world-renowned scientists, auditing classes, participating in seminars, scientific meetings – the epic one for me during my stay will be on Ebola at the 8th International Symposium on Filoviruses & 58th ITM Colloquium in September. In addition, I am generally spending time in the company of a community of smart people and enjoying some quiet time for reading.
But the journalist in residence fellowship program also plays out differently. It is at a more symbiotic level. It also is solo (I am the only one), deadlines are still pretty much part of the game, it is focussed on tropical diseases and medicine as you may be aware that ITM is also one of the world’s leading institutes for training, research and assistance in tropical medicine and health care in developing countries.
Partly housed in a former monastery built in the 17th century, ITM has many synergies with other regions and continents as it works with many scientific institutions, governments and organisations from all over the world for a long-lasting improvement of health care and disease control in developing countries. Collaborations between the global West and South are intensifying and very fruitful, and ITM is certainly a key hub in this respect.
I am spending half of my time with the team working on International Health Policies (IHP) (Health Policy Unit) and the Communities of Practice (Health Economics unit), both key initiatives of the institute’s broader Knowledge Management (KM) Portfolio.
So far I am reading a lot of literature mostly recommended by Kristof Decoster (IHP) about international health policies, health financing and health systems strengthening. I am also working closely with him on the IHP weekly newsletter you should subscribe to if you have not already.
For the second month of my stay, I will switch to the communications unit headed by Roeland Scholtalbers. While there, the focus will change to interviewing, interacting with scientists and writing as well as blogging about research in biomedical sciences, clinical sciences and public health (i.e. the three ITM departments).
It is such a short time but I intend to fit in many ‘quirky’ experiences as well: visits by friends who were in Uganda for internships, like Anna Maria in Spain, Rossane in Holland, …. I also want to catch up with some language lessons in French, which I last learnt many decades ago. And of course drink at least one different type of Belgium beer every day, since the country has the greatest diversity of original beers in the world ! I certainly won’t forget the quality chocolate either, which is just awesome.
It appears Antwerp will mostly be wet for most of my stay, which I would trade for ‘blessing the rains’ back at home in Uganda where we badly need them since we rely on agriculture. I also anticipated it as I was making preparations for my stay with the staff here keeping me updated with what to expect. Rain, clearly. And some more rain.
But while taking a “guided” tour of the ITM buildings in the company of Eline Van Meervenne, I soon realized the green neatly kept gardens also have something to smile about every day. I’m sure ITM staff feel the same, even if they – as I already noticed – like to grumble about the Belgian weather!