School of Medicine Student Conducts Research in The Gambia as Benjamin H. Kean Fellow

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Malcolm Velasco

SAVANNAH – Mercer University second-year medical student Malcolm Velasco received a Benjamin H. Kean Travel Fellowship in Tropical Medicine to conduct research in The Gambia in West Africa this past summer. He was one of 21 fellows selected this year from medical schools across the country.

“Shortly after meeting Malcolm, I knew that he was committed to helping the less fortunate. He’s a global big-picture person, so I was not surprised when he applied to spend the summer in The Gambia,” said Dr. Robert Visalli, associate professor and chair of biomedical sciences in Mercer’s School of Medicine. “Malcolm was awarded a highly competitive Kean Fellowship placing a Mercer student alongside other recipients from schools like Harvard, Yale and Brown.  I have no doubt that Malcolm acted as a great ambassador for our school during his research time in Africa.”

Velasco worked alongside pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Toby Candler with the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene on a project, titled “Inter-generational risk factors for obesity: a path to prevention in low and middle-income countries based on a modifiable epigenetic signature in the POMC gene.”

This research investigates how epigenetic modifications of the gene responsible for producing the protein proopiomelanocortin (POMC) may affect weight regulation in areas where seasonal fluctuations in food supply are common. Previous research has shown that POMC methylation is linked to maternal nutritional status around conception.

“The Gambia is an ideal place to do this research, as most villages there are subsistence farming communities,” said Velasco. “A year’s worth of staple crops are grown during the short, four-month rainy season. Oftentimes, before harvesting the new crop, the previous year’s harvest is exhausted, resulting in a period of limited calorie consumption.”

Velasco primarily assisted with data collection, traveling to rural villages and working with an MRC team and village liaison to collect nutritional status data on project participants from 32 different villages. Data points measured included the bioimpedance, skin fold thickness, height, weight, and mid-upper arm-circumference of the women and their children.

In return for involvement in the project, participants were given access to free medical care for themselves and their children at MRC clinics, where Velasco shadowed the physicians.

“Many of the physicians were internationally trained, giving me insight into the different methods of physician training around the world,” said Velasco. “The most important thing I learned from my experience was the dedication and resourcefulness required to run a research project in an inherently chaotic environment. In such a rural area, it is not as easy to obtain the supplies and personnel necessary for the project. Cultural factors also must be considered.”

Velasco earned his undergraduate degree in history from Emory University and developed an interest in medicine while employed as a paramedic for Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

He served as a Peace Corps health volunteer in The Gambia for two years working with mothers and community health nurses to monitor the nutritional status of children. Upon returning to the U.S., he applied and was accepted to Mercer School of Medicine, where he is currently enrolled on the Savannah campus.

The Benjamin H. Kean Travel Fellowship in Tropical Medicine is awarded annually by the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) to support medical students involved in clinical or research electives in tropical areas.

The fellowship is named after Benjamin H. Kean, founder of the tropical medical program and a renowned professor of clinical tropical diseases and public health at Cornell University. In addition to being one of the most respected and admired educators at Cornell, Dr. Kean is known for his work in discovering the cause of traveler’s diarrhea and for being a physician to many of the best-known personalities of the 20th century, from artist Salvador Dali to Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II to writer Sherwood Anderson and the Shah of Iran.

ASTMH presents the Ben Kean Fellowships to strengthen the link between the past accomplishments of the clinicians and researchers in tropical medicine and hygiene and the next generation of leaders in the field.

“Overall, my experience in The Gambia was both incredibly informative and also enjoyable on a personal level. I met many researchers and physicians working to solve some of medicine’s most difficult problems. I hope to stay in contact with some of them for the remainder of my career,” said Velasco. “None of this would have been possible without the help of the Ben Kean Travel Fellowship.”

Click here for more information on the Benjamin H. Kean Travel Fellowship in Tropical Medicine.

About Mercer University School of Medicine (Macon, Savannah and Columbus)

Mercer University’s School of Medicine was established in 1982 to educate physicians and health professionals to meet the primary care and health care needs of rural and medically underserved areas of Georgia. Today, more than 60 percent of graduates currently practice in the state of Georgia, and of those, more than 80 percent are practicing in rural or medically underserved areas of Georgia. Mercer medical students benefit from a problem-based medical education program that provides early patient care experiences. Such an academic environment fosters the early development of clinical problem-solving and instills in each student an awareness of the place of the basic medical sciences in medical practice. The School opened a full four-year campus in Savannah in 2008 at Memorial University Medical Center. In 2012, the School began offering clinical education for third- and fourth-year medical students in Columbus. Following their second year, students participate in core clinical clerkships at the School’s primary teaching hospitals: Medical Center, Navicent Health in Macon; Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah; and The Medical Center and St. Francis Hospital in Columbus. The School also offers master’s degrees in family therapy, preclinical sciences and biomedical sciences.

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Kyle Sears