Still a student, Fogarty fellow takes on year-long global health project

Meredith Hickson may have put medical school on hold for a year, but her education has continued straight through.

M4 Meredith Hickson, a Fogarty Global Health Research Fellow, with her colleagues in Uganda.

The fourth-year UMMS student is nearing the end of an 11-month research project in Uganda as a participant in the Fogarty-sponsored Global Health Fellowship Program, which places promising scholars and near-graduates in immersive international research projects. Hickson had never set foot in Uganda before moving there last summer.

“I always knew I was going to have to put graduation on hold for a year, but I was willing to do it,” said Hickson, who is studying the links between malaria, iron deficiency, and cognitive development in children. “I wanted an opportunity to jump out of med school during my training in order to test and apply what I was learning against what is going on in the real world. Having this experience as a trainee is important. For me, it’s become part of my learning.”

Hickson’s project is made possible through a partnership between the universities of Washington, Michigan, Hawaii and Minnesota: the Northern Pacific Global Health Research Training Consortium. Universities nominate fellows for an 11-month international research project, leveraging their collective overseas partnerships to connect fellows with mentors in low- to middle-income countries.

Funded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Fogarty Center, the program has welcomed more than 100 fellows from around the world to date and a recent 2016 NIH continuation grant will fund another 90 fellows over the next five years. In all, 14 UMMS trainees have participated since 2012, working in with partners in China, Ghana, Thailand, Uganda and more.

While many medical students find themselves abroad for a month or two doing clinical rotations or helping a faculty mentor with an ongoing research project, Fogarty scholars spend a year managing their own project from start to finish. Hickson had worked extensively overseas with the Peace Corps prior to medical school and understood the value of being embedded in a place for more than a few weeks. She lives with a host family in Tororo, a city of about 40,000 near the Kenyan border.

“Living here for a year, I’ve formed bonds with my hosts, neighbors, friends and coworkers. It is great context for the work and helps me to see our study subjects not just as study subjects, but as people who are part of this community,” she said. “You pick up some of the language as well as some of the historical and cultural factors that are at play. That’s what I was looking for in a longer-term project.”

She is involved in multiple studies exploring the impacts of malaria on behavior and cognition in both very young and older children, in some cases assessing their exposure to malaria in utero and then tracking their cognitive abilities from birth through the first three years of life . She’ll return to Ann Arbor after the spring to complete her final year of medical school. After that?

“I see myself having a career that combines academic medicine in the US with research and advocacy in a low -income country. The Fogarty was an opportunity for that kind of research experience.” she said. “There are a lot of unique challenges – ethical, logistical and financial – to running a study in a place like Uganda, so it’s an invaluable experience."