Fred Ssewamala, the William E. Gordon Distinguished Professor and Founding Director of the International Center for Child Health and Development (ICHAD) at the Brown School, along with his colleagues Mary McKay, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Initiatives at the Provost Office, and Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, have been awarded the Here & Next Tier 3 University-Wide Research Initiative for a transdisciplinary center focused on HIV and its associated mental health and structural comorbidities in the global context.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 71% of people living with HIV worldwide. The HIV epidemic continues to spread among young people, with adolescents being reported as the only age group where HIV prevalence is rising. Many SSA countries also report poor child and adolescent mental health (CAMH) services and a dearth of CAMH researchers and practitioners. HIV/AIDS and co-occurring mental health problems are further exacerbated by pervasive poverty in SSA. Studies and theory suggest causal pathways between family economic resources, mental health, and HIV risk. Single interventions are insufficient to address the complex and multi-dimensional mental health and HIV-related risks among youth. Hence, combination interventions are critical to providing the transdisciplinary, multi-level response needed to improve HIV and mental health outcomes.

Against this backdrop, the new transdisciplinary center, named “Improving Mental Health, Poverty, and AIDS Research and Training in Global ContexTs” (IMPACT) Global Center” (2024-2027) that will be launched in July will serve as a resource connecting a transdisciplinary network of investigators, including faculty from social work, public health, medical school, engineering (data science), school of design, and arts & sciences, as well as global partners, specifically from Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) with the goal of bringing together new and experienced researchers to test and determine the most cost-effective, promising and scalable interventions as well as advance HIV-focused scientific methods to ultimately reduce new infections and end the HIV epidemic.

Dr. Ssewamala said, “While there are centers and faculty collaborations across campuses addressing these complex public health challenges, most are siloed, involving only two or three WashU faculty, and hence, are limited in their potential to leverage the transdisciplinary learning that can unleash innovative ideas and methodologies to effectively address issues at the intersection of HIV, mental health and poverty. Similarly, there is no concerted effort in bringing all the global partners that WashU faculty works with around a common theme and mission. We believe that IMPACT Global Center will address this gap and we look forward to collaborating with all faculty interested in conducting research on these issues.”

IMPACT Global Center will bring together faculty experts that represent Brown School (Ozge Sensoy Bahar, Byron Powell, Proscovia Nabunya, Nhial Tutlam, Samuel Kizito,), School of Medicine (Elvin Geng, Juliet Iwelunmor), School of Engineering (Chenyang Lu), Arts and Sciences (Cindy Brantmeier), and Sam Fox School (Penina Acayo Laker) to co-lead its Advanced Methods and Development Cores and their units. The Advanced Methods Core, comprised of Dissemination, Implementation, Intervention and Scale-up Science Unit; Quantitative, Qualitative and Mixed Methods Unit; and Data Science Unit, will offer methods workshops and one-on-one consultation for investigators working on HIV, poverty, and mental health. The Development Core, comprised of Pilot Projects Unit; Collaborative Incubator Unit, and Extramural Grant Development Unit, is designed to increase transdisciplinary collaborations, pilot research studies, and extramural grant submissions.

Dr. McKay shared, “The center will foster collaboration and knowledge exchange among experts from diverse fields, transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries. This cross-pollination of ideas and approaches will lead to innovative, holistic solutions that can significantly enhance our ability to address the complex challenges of mental health, financial stability, and HIV/AIDS. We strongly believe that this center will play a pivotal role in attracting top-tier talent and global partnerships, making WashU a leading hub of excellence for cutting-edge research in these areas. Through this transdisciplinary synergy, we can develop more effective interventions and strategies, ultimately improving the well-being of individuals and communities while advancing public health and global development goals.”

Dr. Cavazos-Rehg added, “Transdisciplinary approaches are necessary to address complex issues that lie at the intersection of HIV, poverty, and mental health. Yet, early career researchers as well as those who wish to move into this line of research often face a set of obstacles, including limited funding opportunities for applicants who do not have preliminary data or an extensive track record of publications. Hence, we look forward to supporting our faculty through our center services and activities by providing them with a ready network of transdisciplinary colleagues who will strengthen their research ideas.”

The center’s commitment to address HIV and its associated mental health and structural mental health and structural comorbidities in the global context in collaboration with global partners echoes WashU’s commitment to pioneering an innovative, collaborative model addressing public health challenges. Its multidisciplinary approach to applied research that utilizes cutting-edge rigorous new research methodologies aligns with WashU’s commitment to research excellence; and its commitment to rigorous applied research has tremendous potential to make an impact on the lives of children, youth, families, and communities directly affected by HIV, mental health challenges, and poverty, amplifying the university’s impact in the global context.

Dr. Sensoy Bahar, Research Associate Professor at the Brown School and co-lead of the center’s administrative core, noted “We have been conceptualizing this center for the past several years. Hence, we are thrilled to finally bring it to life thanks to the funding from Here & Next. We cannot wait to engage with researchers here at WashU and in Sub-Saharan Africa to produce cutting-edge innovative research on HIV, mental health, and poverty, and facilitate both south-to-north and south-to-south bidirectional learning. We strongly believe that our work in the next three years will strategically position the center to be competitive for external center grants”. Dr. Nabayinda, a recent PhD graduate from Brown School, who will serve as the center manager, added “The opportunity to foster collaborations and build networks excites me deeply as a junior investigator. Together, we will tackle challenges and seize opportunities with enthusiasm and innovation. I look forward to engaging with stakeholders across disciplines and sectors”.

For more information about the IMPACT Global Center and how to get involved, please contact our center manager Dr. Josephine Nabayinda at