Expanding the boundaries of collaboration

Achieving success by crossing traditional lines of collaboration, two partnerships at the College of Medicine offer insights into why these alliances are needed and how they can be fostered.

Alexandra King and Linda Chelico.

Partners for Indigenous Health

Linda Chelico and Alexandra King genuinely like each other. It’s why they keep finding interesting ways to work together. That, and their mutual respect for the different expertise each brings to the union, plus their willingness to admit their own weaknesses and learn from one another.

And that means their work is making a difference for Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan. They connected not long after King joined the college as Cameco Chair in Indigenous Health in October 2017.

“We both work in the HIV field and 80 per cent of those living with HIV in Saskatchewan are Indigenous,” Chelico said.

She was aware there were important ethics requirements in working with Indigenous people and communities, beyond the standard biomedical science ethics she regularly applies in her work as a biochemist.

“When Alexandra started at the college, people were telling me to connect with her.”

King is a citizen of the Nipissing First Nation in Ontario and an internal medicine specialist with a focus on HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and HIV/HCV co-infections. She also brings expertise as a community-based researcher to their partnership.

Chelico first reached out to King to discuss a specific research project—one she decided not to pursue on the basis of King’s advice that further engagement with community was required to determine if the research was a priority for them. That critical step allows for a partnership and good processes to be co-created, resulting in truly community-engaged and ethical research.

Then, a little serendipity came into play to cement their research partnership and friendship, when organizers of the Canadian Association for HIV Research (CAHR) decided to hold their 2019 conference in Saskatoon. They approached King to be a conference chair and she reached out to Chelico to be her co-chair. This led to about eight months of working together intensively on the conference theme and planning.

For Chelico, the CAHR conference meant diving into unfamiliar work and settings. She took the initiative to reach out to all Saskatchewan Indigenous HIV research groups she could to ensure the conference effectively brought forward all the work being done in the province and included those doing the work. She also interviewed people living with HIV to ensure the conference planning and theme were effective and appropriate.

King said, “One of the things I was grateful for with Linda was she had already done a lot of work around reconciliation and what that meant herself, and really took a leadership role as a strong ally. That helped set the tone for the conference.”

The two also work together on the Saskatchewan HIV/AIDS Research Endeavour (SHARE). Chelico joined the group when a spot opened up with the departure of Ryan Meili, formerly on the college faculty, who was entering politics and went on to become leader of the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party.

SHARE gave Chelico more community-level research exposure.

“I have huge admiration for Linda for being involved in SHARE,” King said. “She’s been asked to step up, and sometimes in weird and wonderful ways, and she does.”

Uncertain where the work was taking her, Chelico nonetheless chose to take the risk. While she admits that the end results of a lot of what she’s doing feel unclear and very different from what she’s used to, she knows the work is important as an HIV researcher in Saskatchewan.

“I actually spoke to people that are living with HIV. I have worked with aspects related to HIV for about 10 years before I actually met someone living with HIV and asked them about things or just talked to them about their everyday life, what’s it like to get care, and so on. That really has made things more realistic in my research—what’s important and why.”

While the type of tangible benefits Chelico is used to seeing in scientific lab results remain elusive, working with King on the CAHR conference and through SHARE has generated a lot of ideas for how they could do research together.

In the meantime, they have some new areas of work to keep their partnership alive and developing. King is leading research, with Chelico as one of the investigators, on a new $2.9-million Indigenous-led research centre to close gaps in prevention and care of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. They are collaborating on a project to support better ethical approaches in Indigenous health research, with King bringing knowledge of community-based research and Indigenous perspectives and Chelico bringing her grounding in ethical requirements in biomedical science research. They are also working together for Sanctum 1.5, a 10-bed prenatal care home which supports high-risk and HIV positive pregnant women at risk of having their infants apprehended at birth.

For Chelico, the partnership has been about stepping out of her comfort zone and doing work that wouldn’t bring clear or immediate career benefit. For King, it’s an opportunity to work closely with someone whose interest and strength in basic science complements her own strengths in community-based research and as an Indigenous woman and medical expert.

So far, their work hasn’t involved King joining Chelico in the lab, but King said she is certain of this:

“If I was going to spend time in the lab, I would want it to be with Linda.”

This is part two of a two part story. Read part one. It first appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Connective Issue.

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