This month we talk with Tamutenda Chidawanyika, MD, PhD, who gives her perspective on the symbiotic relationship between medicine and research in Obstetrics and Gynecology. She discusses economic health disparities, and the alarming number of global obstetric and gynecologic health risks still facing women today.
Tamutenda Chidawanyika is an intern resident physician in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT. Originally from Zimbabwe, Tamu earned her MD-PhD from Dartmouth in Hanover, NH. During her PhD in Biochemistry and Cell Biology, she identified and characterized genes that are essential for cell death to occur due to different types of cellular stress, specifically oxidative stress, and protein misfolding resulting in endoplasmic reticulum stress. As she embarks on her career in Obstetrics and Gynecology, Tamu is committed to equity in women’s health. As a physician-scientist, she plans to achieve this goal using basic science and translational research to inform her clinical practice.
SHWI: Congratulations on your recent completion of your MD and starting your residency at Yale School of Medicine! Tell us a little about your life journey, and what brought you to wanting to study vaginal health? Where do you see your career heading?
Thank you very much. I’m very excited for the next chapter of my training and career!
I was born and raised in Mutare, a beautiful town on the eastern border of Zimbabwe. From an early age, I had an interest in medicine, and gravitated towards women’s health because of the health disparities that I saw disproportionately affecting women in my hometown. After college, I decided to spend a couple of years doing research on tuberculosis. That experience was so positive for me, that it changed how I wanted to practice medicine. I realized that research allowed me to transcend physical barriers because I could affect the lives of patients all over the world without having to be physically in their presence. Incorporating research into my medical career became a priority for me, so I decided to pursue an MD/PhD.
During my clinical rotations in medical school, I rediscovered my love for working with and for women on my Obstetrics and Gynecology (Ob-Gyn) rotation. While on an elective for female pelvic medicine working with Dr. Cathy Yi, I had the opportunity to learn more about the role of the vaginal microbiome in maintaining vaginal health. I was so impressed by the level of sophistication of the vaginal microbiome – so delicate, yet so robust, and critical in its role in maintaining women’s health.
A career that allows me to integrate medicine, research, global health, and policy for the benefit of women’s health would be ideal for me. Through medicine, I want to help the patients in my immediate community daily. Through research and policy, in addition to the patients I see daily, I want to help patients that I never have to meet, whether they live in another country or in the future, long after I am gone.
SHWI: What does it mean that you were in an MD/PhD program? How is it different from being either an MD or a PhD?
The MD/PhD program trained me to be a physician (MD) and a researcher (PhD). Even though medicine and research enjoy a symbiotic relationship, the two disciplines speak very different languages. While medicine is focused on diagnosis and treatment, research is focused on discovery of new knowledge. It is important to have individuals who can communicate effectively between the disciplines to be able to maximize the potential of both and to advance patient care. In an ideal world, MD/PhDs are these individuals.
SHWI: Tell us about your training experience so far as a medical student, especially with regards to women’s health. What has been impactful to you? Where do you see gaps that could be addressed in the future?
My experiences were very positive. I was fortunate to work with Ob-Gyns who are genuinely invested in women’s health, and this was very inspiring for me.
The most impactful thing for me so far has come from the patients who’ve made me realize that the healthcare-associated challenges affecting women in Zimbabwe are similar to the challenges that affect women in the United States. They may vary in terms of degrees of severity due to differences in levels of economic development, but globally, women still die at alarming rates from obstetric and gynecologic conditions that we have insufficient knowledge about and no cures for. This realization has strengthened my conviction to use medicine and research to address some of the questions of morbidity and mortality in women’s health globally.
One important gap that is very apparent in the United States is racial and ethnic disparities in women’s healthcare delivery and access. Even though there have been many advances in women’s health, women of color still face higher morbidity and mortality rates from various conditions. Fortunately, we exist in a time when disparities in women’s healthcare are being openly discussed, and the field of Ob-Gyn is committed to tackling issues of women’s healthcare disparities. It will take time to address them, but I am optimistic about the actions that are being taken. Another gap is in our knowledge base. In any evolving and growing medical field the quest for knowledge and understanding never ends. This is no different for the disciplines of Obstetrics and Gynecology as the field continues to diverge into various sub-specialties. Fortunately, we are in an age where our technological advances and tools are allowing for greater scrutinization of questions we may have, and this will allow for improved patient care.
SHWI: What have you learned in your Biochemistry and Cell Biology PhD that might be applicable to women’s health in the future?
From my PhD, I learned that scientific inquiry, the ability to think critically, and the boldness to pursue and address questions and challenges within any system that you want to improve, are all important. I think a mentality of this nature when doing research within Ob-Gyn will advance the field significantly in the future.
In terms of my specific PhD work, I was focused on identifying and characterizing genes that are involved in executing cell death after cells experience a certain type of stress. Many diseases affecting women involve cell death (eg. gynecologic cancers), I can see the potential of my work’s relevance in the development of therapeutics to limit or exacerbate cell death. Through my work, I learned that basic science research is so critical to the development and expansion of our knowledge base and therapeutics to treat various conditions affecting women.