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My journey to a research year in global health

My journey to a research year in global health

Are you a prospective medical student wondering how you can incorporate global health into your medical school career? Are you a current medical student considering a research year or a dual degree? Or maybe you are one of my family members who wants to better understand why I am living in Uganda for a year? Here is a bit more information about how I decided to take a year away from medical school to pursue global health research.

Global and public health are the passions that brought me into medicine. My mother immigrated to the US from Venezuela, and I grew up hearing stories that compared her life in Venezuela to my life in the US. From a young age, I was acutely aware of my own privilege and of global health disparities. I expected that I would get a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) during medical school, so much so that I applied to several dual degree MD/MPH programs in addition to MD programs.

My mentors came to Kampala and gave a talk on mentorship! Pictured are Dr. Kolars, Dr. Moyer, Catherine and Hilda.

During my clerkship year, I had two important realizations: (1) I absolutely love clinical medicine, and (2) I miss the global and public health roots that brought me into medicine. Armed with the knowledge that I made the right career choice, but also eager to learn about ways to diversify my future career and incorporate global and public health, I consulted multiple mentors. Pivotal insight came from a peer mentor, a fellow medical student, who had applied to multiple research fellowships as well as MPH programs for her gap year. It was invaluable to hear about her thought process, how she approached researching each program, and what she did to be successful in her applications. The University of Michigan Medical School invests in teaching medical students about mentorship and leadership, and my mentors were pivotal in helping me think through my gap year plans and successfully apply to a research fellowship.

In retrospect, I am glad that I did not have to decide about a dual degree during my first year of medical school. The experiences during my clerkships heavily influenced my thinking about the gap year. As I checked in with myself during the clerkships, I realized that I loved working again and learning on the job. I felt so much fulfillment from studying material that directly applied to my patients. I also realized that I struggled to focus during our three-hour lectures on Friday afternoons, and I didn’t feel as much eagerness to return to the classroom just yet. Another important factor for me was, and is, cost. I only explored fully funded programs, including funded research years and MPH scholarships.

At the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland for the Fogarty Orientation!

Ultimately, I learned of the NIH Fogarty International Center global health research fellowship through my mentors. The fellowship is a 12-month global health research training program for post-doctorate and doctoral trainees in the health professions. It is awarded through the University of Michigan, which is part of the Northern Pacific Global Health (NPGH) Fogarty research fellow consortium that includes the Universities of Washington, Hawaii, Indiana and Minnesota. Respective projects range from researching the continuum of care for triple negative breast cancer to diagnostic algorithms for tuberculosis meningitis to community-based death investigation of childhood mortality. What excited me most about the Fogarty program is that it would allow me to genuinely delve into global health research, own my project from start to finish, get on-the-ground experience, and have the space to reflect on what I want my career path to look like going forward. During my research about the Fogarty program, I felt that the fellows and program directors strived to approach global health research in an ethical, collaborative and sustainable manner.

Mentor team meeting in Kampala with Dr. Cheryl Moyer, left, and Dr. Peter Waiswa, center.

In order to apply, I had to find a research mentor based at the University of Michigan as well as a local research mentor based in one of the consortium’s partner countries. Next, I had to develop a project with my mentors, write a research proposal, and outline my previous experience in research and working abroad. I prioritized finding an excellent mentorship team because my prior research experiences taught me that mentorship can not only influence the success of the project, but also can define the extent of my personal growth and learning. Since I was in the midst of my core clerkships, I met potential mentors during the evenings and on my days off. I found that dedicating specific time and energy to networking with and identifying faculty who would be best positioned as well as willing to support me was an invaluable step of the application process. I am fortunate to have found a phenomenal research triad in Dr. Cheryl Moyer, Dr. Peter Waiswa and Dr. Joseph Kolars.

Many people asked me why I did not consider a two-month away rotation with a small research component instead. The short answer is I didn’t feel that would adequately allow me to reach my goals. I preferred to seek an immersive experience where I could fully own a project, learn research skills while directly applying them to my project, and gain an intimate understanding for what it takes to conduct global health research. My journey to the Fogarty fellowship required me to reflect on what I want and how I learn best. I can confidently say I made the right decision. I am incredibly grateful to the University of Michigan Medical School and the Fogarty International Center for the opportunity to pursue my passions.

Stay tuned for another blog next year with updates about my research project!

Snapshot of rooftops in Kampala

Back to School

Well, I just finished my first week of this school year. I feel a bit like an undergrad again, especially since the medical school academic year began over a month ago.  To be taking classes on Central Campus (not Medical Campus) and rushing between buildings (outside, not through interconnected hallways) is something that I haven’t experienced for a few years.

And, when I realized that the freshmen who form the majority of the Chinese class I’m taking for fun were in elementary school when I graduated from high school, well, I felt old.

I’m not old, really. I’m used to being the youngest person in my class, not the oldest. People routinely guess my age as 12 (I’m not joking), and my four-years-younger brother is thought to be the older of us two.

I have definitely grown and matured since I was a freshman at UM. And never has this been so absolutely clear to me as when I’m sitting next to a group of them. They’re awesome, and I look forward to getting to know them better. But it’s still amusing to hear them complain about the exorbitant price of textbooks and their Great Books class. The best moment, though, was definitely when I said that I was not a freshman but a third-year MD/PhD student and one person’s response was “Isn’t that a lot of hard work?”

Yep. It definitely is. But so worth it.

I’ve settled into my lab, and my research is merrily chunking along. Between research, homework, rowing (my favorite new sport!), and certain medical-school extracurriculars (ahem, first Smoker meeting is next week), I feel like I’m being pulled in multiple directions simultaneously. But as long as I stay present in my current activity and plan out what needs to get done ahead of time, habits will form and everything will be accomplished.

But, in the meantime, I still have memories of my family’s recent trip to Mackinac Island… and the FUDGE to prove it!

And interview season comes to an end!!

Phew! The interview season has been quite a whirlwind! I’m just finally catching my breath. 19 interviews in 3 months has made for a VERY busy few interview season, but it wouldn’t have been possible without all my wonderful friends throughout the country who offered me their couches, rides to the airport, dinner, and even ironed my suit when it was deigned too wrinkly to be worn. Now we begin the process of ranking programs and then we sit tight till Match Day.

In the world outside of medical school, a lot of other things have been happening. We experienced a polar vortex here in Michigan… and when temperatures dropped below freezing, many people (including my parents) woke up to burst pipes and a waterfall gushing into our living room. Fortunately we were home so we were able to limit the damage, but it was a reminder that sometimes, despite our best efforts, nature trumps us all!

This month, in addition to traveling for interviews, I’m student teaching a course on Global Health at Harvard Medical School for first and second year students. I got a chance to take the course last year while I was doing my MPH at Harvard and it was such a wonderful experience I decided to go back. The course was a really pivotal moment in my training because it focused on applying clinical knowledge to under-resourced settings. It was really cool to think about how to take the intense clinical guidelines and algorithms I had learned during 3rd and 4th year and think about how I would change them and still care for my patients if I didn’t have all the resources of a large university hospital. I realized during that course that I wanted my career to focus on practicing in an underserved setting. I’m really excited to be able to go back and offer guidance as a student teacher.

Another thing I’m really excited about is that I have the opportunity to give a student lecture. I decided to talk about my experience this summer in Haiti and focus on the pathways of aid after the earthquake. As we were making the guest lecturer schedule, I realized one of the guest speakers in the course is Dr. Kobel, who I learned about during my rotation in Haiti and is famous for leading humanitarian efforts after the earthquake. I’m thrilled to have him be part of our course and to finally meet him!

For the next month I’ll be based in Boston, working on things for the course and finally making headway on a bunch of research projects that I’ve been slowly working on for the past year and of course, looking forward to the match! Will keep you updated in the meantime! If anybody has any questions about pursuing dual degrees, getting an MPH, global health, living in Boston, or how to manage burst pipes, send them my way ☺