A Conversation with Incoming ASTMH President Patricia Walker

Posted 15 November 2016

Patricia F. Walker, MD, DTM&H, FASTMH, Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Medical Director of the HealthPartners Travel and Medicine Center, and a leading authority on refugee health, has assumed the position of ASTMH President for 2016-17. She recently sat down with science writer Matthew Davis to discuss several topics, including the record attendance at the 2016 Annual Meeting, her roots in tropical medicine and her priorities for the coming year. 

There was record attendance at this year’s ASTMH Annual Meeting, about 4,400 people, including lots of young faces and people from many countries. Why is this meeting such a big draw?

I think if there is one positive aspect of what happened in the last few years, with Ebola, chikungunya and Zika, it is that many more people are now aware that tropical diseases are a global challenge. That has inspired many young people to consider working in some aspect of tropical medicine. 

We are also living in an increasingly connected world and people understand that the ASTMH Annual Meeting is where you will find a lot of bright, curious, driven professionals—and while they may be working in a discipline different from yours, they probably share a similar set of core values.  

One of the things I have always appreciated about my friends and colleagues in the Society is that we approach our work with a sense of compassion, equity, respect, trust and cultural humility. Whether we are basic scientists in the lab, clinicians, public health or policy experts at ASTMH, we share a common goal of reducing global health disparities and alleviating suffering due to tropical infectious diseases. More and more young people want to be a part of a community like that.  As a result, they are joining our Society and they are coming to our Annual Meeting. They quickly recognize that this meeting is a combination of the brightest minds in tropical medicine from around the world: the best scientists and passionate advocates who are at the bench, in the field, at the bedside and thinking about big-picture solutions to global health problems. You can just feel that energy as you walk around our meeting.

Given all of the young people today who are drawn to tropical medicine, tell us about what first inspired you to pursue a career in the profession and to focus on refugee health?

My parents were living and working in Taiwan where I was born; later we moved to Thailand and Laos, where I grew up. When I was young, that was still a time when you saw people in the streets that had been crippled by polio or were suffering from Hansen’s disease.  Growing up in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, I also saw how politics influences health and was inspired by physicians working in Laos, such as Dr. Charles Weldon and Dr. Tom Dooley. That immersive experience with the realities of global health and the refugee experience made a lasting impression on me. 

I went to medical school and did my internal medicine residency at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. American Refugee Committee was formed in Minnesota, at the height of the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. It was my third year in medical school and Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees were fleeing over the border into Thailand. My older sister called and said, “You speak Thai, you should go and help.” Since I was worried that I was unprepared, I spent the next six weeks reading two tropical medicine textbooks cover to cover! I diagnosed my first case of Madura foot (still a neglected tropical disease) in a refugee camp in Eastern Thailand, explaining to my supervising physician a disease he had never seen. That experience of working during a major international refugee crisis cemented my passion to work in tropical medicine and global health.

You are assuming the presidency of ASTMH as a time of considerable political uncertainty in the United States. What is the role of ASTMH in such a challenging environment? 

We will continue our efforts to be the leading voice for the importance of eliminating tropical diseases and we will continue to make the case that global health concerns are important national concerns as well. We are an interconnected world—connected by travel, commerce, trade, communication and ideas, There is simply no such thing as “disease here and disease over there,” given the magnitude and speed of our global, mobile population. This has been our message to Congress and the White House, Republican or Democrat, because health is and always has been non-partisan.  A strong U.S. investment in tropical medicine and global health is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.  This support is two-pronged: a sense of compassionate commitment to the world community and protecting the health of people in the United States. We will continue to be proactive on policy and funding concerns. Our current system of moving from funding crisis to crisis in global health needs rethinking.  As an example, scientists around the globe still need to work on vaccines for Ebola, even though Zika is in the forefront of the news. Our advocacy for Zika funding this year helped clarify the debate and convince decision makers of the importance of supporting scientists and public health experts. ASTMH members and leadership stand ready to work for evidence-based policies and funding with Washington and others in the global stakeholder community.

What are your goals and priorities for the Society during your term as President?

One of the things I like about ASTMH is that the passing of the baton is very smooth. (Outgoing President) Steve Higgs, Secretary-Treasurer David Hill and the Council worked very hard and very successfully to increase the number of students/ trainees and international members in the Society, which now comprise 26 percent and 35 percent of our membership, respectively. I want to build on that work and continue the momentum. So we are launching two new task forces, one for student/trainees and one for international members, to ensure their voices are heard and active within our five subgroups and at the Council level. 

We also have our first international member to be elected to the Council, Abdoulaye Djimde, PharmD, PhD, and I hope to see more of our international colleagues engaged at every level of the Society. That’s one way we can show our commitment to global engagement. I hope that in a few years we will see an international member become President of the Society.  I firmly believe that internationalization and globalization is what makes us stronger. I am constantly seeking out my international colleagues for leadership and advice.

This is an exciting time of transition for the Society. Our Global Health Subgroup (ACGH) now has more members than the Clinical Subgroup (ACCTMTH). We will continue to focus on our core vision, but we will do so with an expanded scope and fueled by a lot of new energy. We will be thinking outside the box about new constituencies (we need engineers to help us solve global health problems!), while continuing our strong commitment to support the best scientists in the world who are working on ASTMH’s vision of a world free of tropical infectious disease.