wester-1If you talk to Bill Wester about his work, the first thing you hear will be how much he values the teams on his two major grants.  Due to the hard work and dedication of the faculty, program managers, Bioinformatics team members, web developers, and work/study students he collaborates with, “the sky’s the limit in terms of what can be done.”  As well, he emphasizes that the “exceptional mentoring” received during his career has enabled him to go far—from the US to Africa, in fact.

As PI of a $35 million CDC-funded technical assistance grant, Dr. Wester will spend several weeks in Mozambique for each of the next five years helping the team on the ground in Zambezia Province transition care for HIV-infected patients to locals.  It won’t be Wester’s first time working in sub-Saharan Africa.  From 2000-2008, he lived with his wife and three children in Gaborone, Botswana, helping start the country’s first public antiretroviral treatment clinic for HIV-infected adults.

As someone with an “adventuresome spirit,” and “the heart to do that kind of work,” it was a natural fit.  As well, “it was a dream come true in many ways, because if you’re working in HIV/AIDS, that was really the epicenter of the epidemic.  Botswana had the highest prevalence in the world.”  Today, in part due to his and his wife’s work, as well as the progressive leadership of the country, Botswana has one “one of the most successful HIV programs and responses in Africa.”

Wester is also co-PI of an NIH U01 grant to make Vanderbilt the Coordinating Center of the International epidemiologic Databases to Evaluate AIDS (IeDEA), a global consortium collecting data on more than 650,000 HIV-infected persons around the world.  In addition to coordinating events and making sure communication flows throughout the consortium, the team works with “incredibly talented faculty” in biomedical informatics to promote data harmonization.

“This network has had seven different regions publishing high impact papers, but not doing many multi-regional analyses because the data standards are not uniform,” Wester says.  And “with funding as it is,” many public health questions in HIV research that won’t be answered in randomized clinical trials can be tackled with the existing data in these “colossal” observational databases.

Although he left his fellowship saying he would never work in HIV research, he was drawn to the complexities of care the disease requires, as well as its promise.  These intertwine in his research, because “the great news is patients survive decades now on life-saving treatment, but what we’re finding now is that they do have higher rates of certain metabolic and organ complications,” including in the kidneys, where Wester’s research now focuses.

In addition to valuing teamwork on his projects, Wester found it essential while writing his grants.  He says working meetings made up of key personnel in small rooms made it possible to really “flesh out” what they wanted to do, and led to an exceptional score.  While many grants involve the participants writing their own pieces in isolation, he thinks that having interactive meetings with other team members, where they had specified goals and timeframes and reviewed each other’s work, “helped a ton.”  He also cites very supportive mentors, as well as exceptional teams on the financial and budgeting sides of the grant-writing process.  There are so many resources at Vanderbilt that “you’re really set up for success.”

And when you reach that success?  Wester advises that while “you can’t really rest too comfortably, you also have to pause and celebrate the victories.  You have to be thankful, and acknowledge people who helped you along the way.”

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