Population Health

May 25, 2021

Population health partnership with the Aga Khan University yields global impact

Ana Mari Cauce and Firoz Rasul sign memorandum of understandingSince 2016, the University of Washington and the Aga Khan University (AKU) have collaborated to advance population health, promote education, service, and research opportunities in low- and middle-income countries.

The AKU is a private university under the aegis of Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The university, established in 1983, began as a health-sciences institution but has since grown to include programs in education, media and communications, and Muslim civilizations. The AKU will eventually become a comprehensive university by introducing a program in the Arts and Sciences and a full suite of Graduate and Professional Schools. Since its inception, the university has expanded across three continents, in six countries (Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, England and Afghanistan), with nine campuses.

“There were a lot of synergies between our two institutions not just in terms of our social justice missions, but around the values of what this partnership holds,” Farzana Karim-Haji, director of the Aga Khan University Partnerships Office, said. “The Population Health Initiative at UW draws parallels to AKDN’s Quality of Life Initiative, where both are focused on a holistic view of improving the overall human condition from a variety of aspects in health, education, poverty alleviation, climate change, etc.”

To solidify this partnership, the UW and AKU executed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2019. The MoU was signed by UW President Ana Mari Cauce and AKU President Firoz Rasul in the presence of Prince Rahim Aga Khan and Princess Salwa Aga Khan. The cooperative agreement codified the existing relationship between the two educational institutions while also offering a roadmap for future collaborations.

Through the MoU, the UW and AKU committed to leveraging their academic expertise and resources to promote population health-related research, service, and educational opportunities between the two institutions and the broader regions in which they operate.

“What started as a small conversation has now bridged out into…mobility across campuses, joint research training, [and] capacity development in population health and data sciences,” Karim-Haji said. “We are [also] looking to extend beyond, to nursing, medicine, climate change, and education.”


Among the areas of collaboration, the partnership has offered internships to students, capacity-building opportunities between the institutions and funding to bolster healthcare responses in developing regions around the world.

In March 2018, the UW and AKU entered into a five-year international internship agreement that would offer UW undergraduate and graduate students internship experiences through the AKDN.

Through this program, UW students gain professional development experience and valuable mentorship connections through the AKDN’s expansive network.

“The internships—either virtual or previously on-site—allow students to interact not only with a global team of colleagues from AKU and AKDN agencies, but also with other interns from international universities all over the world. The internships promote definitive projects with clear, accountable outcomes and outputs, ongoing mentorship, access to professional development training and a network of professional colleagues” Karim-Haji said.

Thus far, the AKDN has hosted nearly a dozen in-person and virtual student interns from UW over the course of the program, with student backgrounds including communications, food systems, information management, nursing, psychology and public health.

Capacity Building

In addition to the exchange of curricular knowledge facilitated through internships, the partnership also facilitates a reciprocal exchange of knowledge, skills and resources between the two institutions.

“The complementary strengths of the UW and AKU have us well positioned to improve population health in communities around the world,” shared Ali H. Mokdad, the UW’s chief strategy officer for population health and professor of health metrics sciences. “We are excited that our faculty, students and staff can learn from the expertise AKU has gained from working on the ground in low- and middle-income countries.”

The AKU was established as a health-sciences university but has since expanded to encompass various educational areas. This expansion has been supported by faculty and student exchanges and open communications between the two universities regarding best practices and innovations in established areas of interest such as data science, medicine, climate change and teacher education.

In the area of data science, the UW has supported AKU’s efforts to pursue an interdisciplinary project to create a global data center at AKU. UW faculty from fields such as health metrics sciences, biomedical informatics and public policy have all contributed to the effort.

UW has also consulted with AKU faculty and staff on topics ranging from digital and systems transformation to artificial intelligence to maternal and child health.

“The impact is huge,” Karim-Haji said. “[The collaboration] allows the right people to be connected with direct contacts and counterparts, catalyzing connections across our institutions and campuses.”

Joint Research Grants and Projects

The collaboration has also resulted in joint grants related to building capacity, notably building research and training capacity in healthcare through cross-continental projects.

Most recently, the UW and AKU, in collaboration with other research institutions situated around the globe, have converged to form the United World for Antiviral Research Network (UWARN). The network will support pandemic virus surveillance efforts, researching viral infectious diseases and developing innovative diagnostics. UWARN is supported through a five-year, $8.75 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“Research leads to bigger implications,” Karim-Haji said. “With better data, we can make better decisions, interventions, and impact policy to really change lives.”

In 2019, the UW Office of Global Affairs awarded four Global Innovation Fund grants to UW teams working with AKU Medical College of East Africa colleagues. These grants are intended to promote interdisciplinary and transcontinental collaborations.

“These grants ultimately support the development of new knowledge but also help build capacity on the ground,” Karim-Haji said. “Partnerships such as the one with UW, not only allow us to leverage new resources and new opportunities but help us develop new interventions that improve the quality of life in the communities in which we work and live.”

In 2018, the UW again collaborated with AKU through a NIH grant to strengthen research infrastructure and administration capacity at AKU’s Medical College of East Africa. Through this grant, UW and AKU supported research training on human papillomavirus in Kenya.

Through funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the UW began collaborating with AKU in 2017 to support HIV/AIDS prevention and care efforts in East Africa. Together, the two institutions combined forces to develop infrastructure to train and support Kenyan healthcare workers.


Thus far, the collaboration has yielded promising results for students, faculty and staff at both institutions and the broad regions in which they operate. It has promoted new connections, opportunities for grants, and perspectives, as well as a sense of mutual reciprocity and trust that extends throughout the partnership.

“We’re delighted at the number of early success stories that have been realized through this partnership,” said Mokdad. “At the same time, we feel we’ve barely scratched the surface of impact that can be realized through collaboration with AKU, and we are very much looking forward to continuing to expand our joint work in the years ahead.”