Student Training

Our approach is to build the research pipeline from masters to PhD students, with intern opportunities feeding into this, then to host postdoctoral fellows and mentor young to mid-career scientists, including supporting their preparation for competitive fellowships and grants. We thereby aim to contribute to the next generation of senior scientists and to research leadership in South Africa and the region.

PhD students by gender   and nationality 2016
Female 79%
South African and other African 71%



Students benefit from exposure to:
  • a strong research environment with a diversity of study designs
  • supportive research management at various levels throughout the research process
  • specialised community engagement through the Public Engagement Office
  • On-site seminar series
  • Ongoing efforts to strengthen connectivity between Bushbuckridge and School of Public Health in Johannesburg so students can virtually join the Interdisciplinary PhD Programme
  • Extraction of student datasets by Data Scientist to provide tailored datasets in timely fashion
  • Data website ( provides students with resources to familiarise themselves with HDSS data and prepare a data request. A freely available ‘1-in-10’ sample dataset (anonymised 10% sample of the Agincourt HDSS database that retains the relational, temporal and data integrity of the full database) serves as an exploratory dataset. A data dictionary, data request and data agreement forms are provided.
  • opportunities for informal student interaction and support after working hours at the student accommodation venue, Wits Rural Campus.

Since 2008 the MRC/Wits-Agincourt Unit has emphasised doctoral and postdoctoral training so mentoring talented researchers with steady improvement in graduate throughput.

Staff capacity development

Higher degrees

Over the past 7-years, several Unit research and management staff obtained or are working on higher degrees while conducting and managing research: a total of 8 PhDs over the past 5 years (and 11 over the past 10 years). Since 2012:

  • 3 staff were awarded PhDs: Xavier Gómez-Olivé (2014), Paul Mee (2015); Ryan Wagner (2016); Sulaimon Afolabi (2017); Chodziwadziwa Kabadula (2018); and Mandy Maredza (2018).
  • 3 staff are currently enrolled for a PhD: Rhian Twine, Daniel Ohene-Kwofie, Aviva Tugendhaft
  • Ngoni Ngwarai completed a Masters in Management in 2015 and Floidy Wafawanaka is currently enrolled for a Masters in Pharmacy Practice.

Progression of early to mid-career scientists

Since our previous review, a number of Unit staff have been awarded competitive personal fellowships that indicate high level recognition of research capacity and potential. Carren Ginsburg and Alisha Wade have career development awards from the SAMRC and Fogarty Center, NIH respectively; while Xavier Goméz-Olivé, Chodziwadziwa Kabudula, Mandy Maredza and Ryan Wagner were awarded research fellowships in the US, Australia, UK and SA.

An important indicator of progress to research independence is the ability to generate research grants.  Unit scientists are increasingly involved in the successful generation of core and project funding, critical to their scientific and leadership development. More senior scientists serve as role models and mentors, including Kathleen Kahn, Mark Collinson and Karen Hofman, while junior and mid-level researchers are achieving success. The latter include Ginsburg and Wade’s career development awards, and also Goméz-Olivé, Kabudula and Twine who are PIs / Investigators on a number of competitive grants .

Other staff training


For some years, the Unit has run a successful internship programme for junior data managers (with either a diploma or first degree), and has recently introduced internship opportunities for local youth interested in research management and administration. The data interns have been particularly successful, with most progressing to positions within the Unit after the 6-month internship, first to Data Administrator and then Data Specialist. With growing experience, ongoing on-the-job training and formal study, these staff members play a crucial role within the Unit’s data section.  An indicator of the valuable skills acquired by our data staff, is their success in securing positions in other research organisations.

Administrative, data and field staff studying for degrees or diplomas

The Administrative section introduced an internship programme during the period of review: to-date two local interns contributed to human resources and filing, a mutually beneficial arrangement that contributes to our mandate of supporting communities in which we work.

Staff are encouraged to further their education in line with their current position and future aspirations. Examples of courses currently underway (additions are scheduled in 2018) are listed:


Employee – name and position Degree or diploma
Weekend Khoza – Administrator: HR Bachelor Business Administration, Human Resources
Dorcas Khosa – Administrator: Procurement Bachelor  Accounting Sciences, Financial Accounting
Busisiwe Mayindi – Fieldwork supervisor Bachelor of Arts in Community and Health Care
Audrey Khosa – Project Coordinator BA Communication Science
Itayi Adam – Systems Administrator BSc  Informatics
Ngonidzashe Ngwarai – Operations Manager Certified Risk Management Practitioner
Nkosinathi Masilela – Data Specialist BSc Honors in Computing
Memory Mhembere MSc Data Science, Technology and Innovation

 In addition, various training workshops have been organised for staff, with others planned:

  • Training workshops offered include: Occupational Health Safety and Environment; ERP systems-(Oracle, Procure to Pay,HR Online,  Pastel Sage Evolution); Performance Management; Fast track to Leadership and Development; MS Office; Employee relations; Fleet management; Supervisory Development Programme; Exceptional Office Management.
  • Training workshops planned include: Retirement planning; Fundamentals of Project Management; Resilience for managers; Personal excellence; Money Sense.

Community Capacity Building

Building the Community Advisory Group (CAG)

The Agincourt Public Engagement Office (PEO) ran an annual capacity building and team building workshop for CAG members. These 2-day workshops were held off-site at a nearby conference centre/lodge and were well attended (75% to 90% of the 24-28 participated). Workshops focused on building communication skills, research ethics, research protocols, team building, and roles and responsibilities including annual work plans. A couple of workshops benefited from materials and input from the HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN). In addition, Audrey Khosa (Public Engagement Officer) and Sydney Sibuyi (CAG Spokesperson) attended the HPTN 068 AGM in Washington DC in June 2012, and Simon Khoza (Public Engagement Officer) attended in May 2013.

Over time, the CAG has developed into a group of individuals, representing most villages in the study area, that has a clear understanding of research activities, and are willing to assist the unit in achieving its goals.

Building members of the study communities

 Recruitment workshops: Over two months in 2014, the Public Engagement Office and HR section ran workshops in 21 villages on how to apply for a job, how to write a CV, and on interview skills. These focused particularly on work opportunities within the MRC/Wits Agincourt Unit.

Tertiary Admissions Project (TAP) aims to facilitate ‘high potential’ rural youth to apply to tertiary education institutions. This project provides information on application procedures to 30 high schools in Bushbuckridge and includes a CD with numerous bursary application forms and tertiary education application forms. A major barrier identified in 2010 was poor access to National Benchmark Test (NBT) sites, the closest of which was a minimum of 1 hour away.  Rhian Twine worked with the NBT Test Centre to establish two NBT sites in Bushbuckridge, now coordinated by Audrey Khosa.  Together, the two sites runs 16 tests annually with 15 to 60 students writing each test.

Box: Spontaneous testimony from a student (email edited for length)

From: Excellent Nkuna []
Sent: 18 October 2017 03:31 PM
To: Rhian Twine
Subject: Could I use a few minutes of your time? 

Dear Rhian Twine

…. I was in matric (2014) at Mandondo High School in Belfast Trust, and you (together with Ms Bhengu) helped me with applications and all else about my academics. …. I have realised that I have not …. thanked you properly for putting effort in helping me build a better future for myself.

…. I was enrolled at Wits in 2015, and could not make it further because I didn’t have funding. I ended up de-registering and started afresh with a gap year. I am now enrolled at UKZN for my second year in Medicine, and I have a full bursary from the IDC.

I am greatful for having received such great help and support when I needed it the most.

Yours sincerely

Excellent Nkuna

Training for other institutions

From 2012 to 2016, the Unit (led by Collinson and Ginsburg) ran five training workshops for scientists from participating HDSS research centres. These focused on: standardising HDSS data for multi-centre, comparative analyses; event history analysis; migration, mortality and the epidemiological transition; and interpretation of analytic findings.

Support to Soweto-CHAMPS research site
The Unit provides technical support to the newly established Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance (CHAMPS) site, led by Prof Shabir Madhi, which intends to align its field and data operations to those of the Agincourt HDSS, as part of establishing an urban HDSS in Soweto.

Supporting verbal autopsy (VA) methods
Support is going to the Dikgale HDSS,  Aurum Institute, and the SAMRC Burden of Disease Unit’s National Cause of Death Validation Study.

The Agincourt Unit plays a key role within CARTA (Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa), part of the Wellcome African Institutions Initiative.

Sabbatical visits
Over the review period, the Unit hosted several international scientists on sabbatical, all of whom spent an extended period at the Wits Rural Campus. They include Professors Peter Byass (Umeå University, Sweden), Justine Davies (Kings College, London and Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology) and Miles Witham (University of Dundee, Scotland). All have become honorary staff of the Unit/School of Public Health and collaborate on joint research.