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Happy International Women's Day: TOPOWA Project Celebrates 2 Years!

Happy International Women's Day!

I know that here in the U.S. we aren't very big on celebrating Women's Day. But, in Uganda and many other countries where I work, it's a really big celebration. In some places it's also a holiday.

So, on this special day, let me take a moment to celebrate our TOPOWA Project and everyone who has a role in supporting it. It's a project for women, by women (mostly). We have some great men on the team too!

We launched this huge project on the International Women's Day, two years ago, on March 8, 2022 at the Kolping Hotel in Kampala. We had no idea at that time how challenging this project would become. That our project plan would need to be revised, and revised, and revised again. Our project grew and so did the team. The science stayed the same, but was much more complex to implement than we had realized. It took serious teamwork and lots of collaborations to make it happen.

And, while we call it the TOPOWA project, it has many different pieces and many smaller projects are part of it. But, ultimately, the project is all about women's mental health. It's about place and mental health, it's about developing community-based strategies to promote mental health, and it is about understanding women and their mental health. We focus on the social drivers of mental health, or using another term, the social determinants of mental health. These include factors such as poverty, discrimination, lack of access to education or health care, and it is about violence and discrimination. We study all of this and more. And, we have used lots of different study approaches and methodologies such as community mapping, focus groups, photovoice, pilot studies to answer our many research questions. The ongoing prospective cohort study of 300 young women that started last August will continue until 2026.

In the cohort study, we use wearables (wristwatches with sensors) to examine heart rate and sleep patterns. We collect saliva to measure biomarkers of stress. We collect urine to measure recent alcohol and drug use. We give the participants a computer task to see how they react to fear and startle which represents translational neuroscience. And, we ask them to fill out a short daily diary a few days and we also ask lots and lots of survey questions. So, you can imagine how much data we are collecting in this ground breaking study.

So, to all of you who have been part of this project in some way, small or large, let me thank you and celebrate you. And, I hope you know the meaning of "TOPOWA", to never give up, to be resilient and strong (in Luganda, a local language spoken in Uganda). Please know that each of you individually and collectively contribute to our TOPOWA project in various ways.

Special thanks goes to Dr. Jane Palmier, our Project Director for managing all the challenges behind the scenes. She has been part of this global health journey in Uganda from the very beginning.

And, also special thanks to Anna Nakulabye, the Deputy Director for the Uganda Youth Development Link. She has worked tirelessly with her phenomenal team to make the TOPOWA project come together. Of course, we are also grateful for our funding from the National Institutes of Health. None of this would be possible without this funding.

Finally, thanks to my partner Charles who handles so many logistics behind the scenes and provides great counsel whenever I need it and who is the biggest supporter of this project. And, he is also the person who named this project - TOPOWA!

We have had great successes just in this past year. We launched exactly two years ago and we have stayed focused on our mission and goals. This past year may have been the most challenging of any of our project years, launching the cohort study, setting up the laboratories, ensuring all the technology was working, hiring and training the team and making all the adjustments needed to make it all work. And, it all worked! We're on schedule!

Our TOPOWA cohort study will generate transformative science to help us understand how to improve women's lives and their mental health. It will be worth it, but it will require great teamwork. What we do next will make a difference, a big difference for women. 

So join me, wherever you are, to take a moment and reflect on our accomplishments and what we have achieved together. Are you ready for what is next?

What we do will transform lives. I don't say that lightly, but I know we are. The work is hard, but it is worth it.

And, if you're in the mood for more words of wisdom and support of women and women leaders, here is a link to some terrific and inspirational Women's Day Quotes to Celebrate Empowerment:

Two of my favorite quotes on that list:

"Feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength."

G.D. Anderson

"Every woman's success should be an inspiration to another. We're strongest when we cheer each other on."

Serena Williams

So, let us keep inspiring each other and continue the important work. Let us remind ourselves that we are strong, and that we are even stronger together. Let us do the great work to uplift each other, and cheer each other on.

For me this project is a dream come true. After years and years of planning, strategizing and collaborations, it finally became reality. So, TOPOWA is a word that means a lot to me, in so many different ways.

Thank you to all who believe and support. Enjoy the pictures and reflecting on these special moments and milestones.



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