Global Neurology Trainee Highlight: Aparna Nutakki
Aparna Nutakki is an MS4 at Rush Medical College. Aparna spent two years in Lusaka, Zambia at the University Teaching Hospital diving into the world of global neurology. She was an integral component of several research studies in Zambia, and has been the recipient of the AAN Medical Student Research Scholarship and NIH UMJ Fogarty Fellowship.
Q: What is one of your favorite memories working in Zambia?
What I cherish the most is the feeling of home I have when I think of Lusaka.
My routine of driving to UTH, working with the residents, interacting with, and learning from patients and their families while doing my research, finding a café to work in the evenings, spending time with Dr. Saylor’s family or with the residents, as well as the weekend trips with doctors from the hospital.
Q: What initially sparked your interest in global neurology?
My interests in global health and neurology developed in parallel. During my undergraduate years, I took quite a few neuroscience classes and was absolutely fascinated. Neurons are cool! This interest manifested as a specialty choice in medical school. During preclinical years, I was drawn to the translation of neuroscience into neuroanatomy and neural pathways in preclinical years, and during clinical years, I naturally gravitated towards taking care of patients with neurological diseases. The wide breadth of pathologies, connections with patients and families, the interconnections with other organ systems, the scope for discovery and learning – immensely gratifying and exciting.
After finishing college, I worked in India for 1.5 years as part of the public health sector. Initially, I worked in Wayanad, Kerala, in southern India conducting diabetes and anemia screenings among tribal populations and migrant farmers. Afterwards, I moved up north to New Delhi where I worked on a few projects including Monitoring and Evaluation analysis for clinics in south Delhi’s most underserved patients. My work in India began with a goal of returning to the country of my birth to grow personally and professionally. But the experience truly inspired me to work with medically underserved communities both in the US and abroad.
I was incredibly lucky to learn about the opportunity to work in Zambia early in medical school. The decision to pursue both these growing interests simultaneously was an easy one for me.
Q: How did you find a mentor and resources to pursue global neurology?
As with so many things in life, it was a combination of luck and persistence. When I attended grand grounds given by Dr. Omar Siddiqi about his work in Zambia during my first year of medical school, it didn’t take me more than a few hours to email Dr. Igor Koralnik, who was at Rush at the time. They were kind enough to connect me with Dr. Deanna Saylor. Since day one, Dr. Saylor has been the most incredible teacher, mentor, and friend – I can’t say enough about her. She embodies the person and physician I want to be: unfailingly kind, supportive, collaborative, intelligent, and compassionate.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my family in Lusaka as mentors too. Mashina Chomba, Lorraine Chishimba, and Stanley Zimba (Zambia’s three first neurologists!), the staff of clinic four, the patients at UTH – they were welcoming, kind, and patient ambassadors in teaching me about UTH, neurology, and Zambian culture.
As for resources, it’s an interesting dichotomy. There exist plenty of resources for students/residents but unclear directions on how to find or apply for them. This, again, is where a mentor can help students; Dr. Saylor pointed me towards the American Academy of Neurology, whose support through the Medical Student Research Scholarship funded a large part of my first year in Zambia. She also mentored my application to the NIH UJMT Fogarty Fellowship, which I was so thankful to receive to stay a second year in Lusaka. In addition, I think doing your own research and talking to people who are interested in the same areas can also be fruitful.
Q: Do you have any words of advice to other students or trainees who are interested in global neurology?
Do it! From my own experience, I have come across two types of people interested in global neurology. First, those that are interested in incorporating global health/global neurology longitudinally into their careers. The second, those that want the experience of learning to work in a new healthcare system (in and out of low-resourced settings). Either way, I believe it can be an important and formative experience. For those interested in the former group but unsure where to start – don’t be shy to ask, email, and/or reach out to anyone who might be helpful. There are so many mentors out there who are passionate about your professional growth and can direct you towards the resources that will help you get there and create a career that is best for your professional and personal growth.
For the latter, it’s totally reasonable to want shorter experiences. They are still enriching. A month working in a new healthcare setting can expose us to new pathologies and help us learn to practice medicine using a different set of resources. A lot of medical schools and residency programs have funding and resources that are available for us!
I also want to fully recognize my privilege of having the support from my family and school to take two years out of medical school to pursue my interests. This may not be possible for everyone. But, I echo my previous sentiment that if there is an interest, there are mentors and resources out there for you to have that experience.
Lastly, I want to say that global health, at least in my perspective, is more than traveling to a foreign location; it encompasses the health of those within and outside our immediate community. The way I like to think about it is; if there’s a need and I can/am passionate about filling it, let’s find the people and resources to do it.