In the heart of southern Africa, at The University Teaching Hospital in Zambia, medical students and residents gather around Michelle Kvalsund, DO, in the electromyography (EMG) lab she helped develop. It’s the only one in Zambia, providing the opportunity to study, identify and treat neuromusculoskeletal disorders.
As a 2018-2020 National Academy of Medicine fellow, Dr. Kvalsund, a global health neurologist and assistant professor at Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, says she plans to work on initiatives that emphasize the intersection of global health and nutrition as well as policy initiatives. She spoke with The DO about her selection as a NAM fellow and her plans to have a global impact. This is an edited version of our Q&A.
How did you feel when you learned you’d been selected as a NAM fellow?
I was amazed that I would have this opportunity. It’s an absolute honor. I’m sure there were many outstanding candidates and so I felt especially privileged to be selected.
What are you most excited about pursuing as a fellow?
There are a variety of opportunities on policy projects. I hope to be involved in consensus reporting with respect to global health and nutrition. But there is exposure well beyond global health and nutrition, because of the diversity of specialties, the perspectives outside of clinical research and having access to the national academies. I will gain access to the top thinkers in the U.S. from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. What appealed to me is being able to step outside of my niche world of global health neurology.
You spend nine months each year embedded in Zambia. What’s the most rewarding aspect of doing that?
Being able to develop an electromyography lab has been one of the most rewarding parts of my work in Zambia. Through the lab, we’re able to provide not just neurology, but neurological diagnostics. I conduct a clinic once a week and it is incredibly fulfilling to diagnose conditions that were difficult to sort out without that specific test. As a global health researcher, it’s unique to be completely embedded in the area where I conduct my research for the last 5 years. From this vantage point, I have direct insight into the challenges and opportunities.
What is needed to strengthen global health systems?
I’ve realized that neurological research is needed for stronger local and global health systems. For example, neurological manifestations have loomed large in recent epidemics, but there has been little discussion about the role of neurology in surveillance systems. I would like to add my perspective as a research scientist and neurologist practicing in that region and provide insights for health policymakers that can benefit a global community.
Why did you want to become a global health neurologist?
I worked in Zambia with my mentor while a master’s student in epidemiology. I was able to understand the importance of doing research. I witnessed the need for physician experts on the ground in resource-limited settings.
How have the medical students you’re training in Zambia responded?
The atmosphere at University Teaching Hospital is very special. I have tremendous admiration for the doctors and scientists I work with in the Department of Internal Medicine. Because of the collegial environment and access to physician specialists, it’s also an outstanding opportunity to learn tropical neurology. We often host U.S. medical students and young neurologists for 4-6 weeks of elective time in Zambia. It’s a mutually rewarding experience to have them on the ground.
What is your ultimate goal?
As a global health neurologist, I want to bring these discussions to others outside of neurology, and even outside of medicine. I hope that by learning the processes of the NAM, I can learn to talk to other disciplines, legal experts and policymakers to most effectively translate my research findings into policy and health care improvements.