Using home-grown knowledge to advance health in Suriname
March/ April 2022 | Volume 21 Number 2
Courtesy of Maureen LichtveldDr. Maureen Lichtveld (right) mentored Fogarty Scholars while developing an environmental epidemiology cohort study in Suriname.
Suriname is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse countries in the Western Hemisphere, making for a unique population to study. At just 23 years old, Dr. Maureen Lichtveld began her career working with communities living in the Amazon rainforest in her home country, a small Caribbean nation on the northern coast of South America. While in the Amazon doing clinical work, Lichtveld realized many of the health issues plaguing its small communities could be linked back to the toxins in the environment. This realization was the beginning of what would be a life-long career in environmental health research. Today, she is a renowned environmental epidemiologist and Dean of the University of Pittsburg's School of Public Health.
Lichtveld's Surinamese background brings a unique perspective to the field of environmental and global health. As a part of the
UJMT Fogarty Global Health Fellowship, Lichtveld developed the first project of its kind in the Caribbean. "With Fogarty funding, we put together an environmental epidemiology cohort study that brought together 1,200 pregnant moms and ultimately babies who are now three to four years old," said Lichtveld. "For the first time, we were conducting this research in a country where things like cultural and geographic differences had never been considered."
The study focused on assessing the effect of neurotoxins on the health of babies in Suriname, looking for any indications of the impact of the exposure on their brain development. As a result, they collected more than 15,000 biospecimen samples, making it the largest biospecimen bank in Suriname, an invaluable resource for future research in that area. "The return on investment from this Fogarty funding has been phenomenal, and it is important work that I hope we can continue." Lichtveld hopes to build off this project, looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, studying the effect of neurotoxins on generations of women, from grandmothers to their grandchildren.
An accomplishment Lichtveld is most proud of came out of Fogarty's GEOhealth program. She and her colleagues developed a fully hybrid master of science/public health degree program at the University of Suriname, specifically designed to address important local health problems while keeping scientists in country and avoid brain drain. Since its inception, four cohorts have graduated from the program, and seven students have moved on to theirPh.D.'s, focusing their research on environmental epidemiology.
Lichtveld's role as a diaspora scientist and a woman in science has influenced her from the beginning of her career. "When my mother passed away, one of the things that I promised her I would do is grow women leaders in the field," said Lichtveld. "Women in leadership, especially in low- and middle-income countries, have tremendous benefits often using a multi-disciplinary and holistic approach in their work."
Dr. Cecilia Alcala, a mentee of Dr. Lichtveld, is currently in a post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She credits her time working with Dr. Lichtveld for helping her establish a career in global environmental health research. "Seeing Suriname from the perspective of a diaspora scientist like Dr. Lichtveld and understanding the perspective of the researchers who worked alongside us in Suriname gave us a well-rounded experience and allowed us to connect on a deeper level with the community," said Alcala. "The research we did during my global health fellowship was something the community and the government needed in order to pursue different interventions and policies. Understanding that impact was a stepping-stone for me to see that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life."
Another mentee of Dr. Lichtveld's, Anisma Gokoel, a researcher at the Academic Hospital Paramaribo in Suriname, began working with her on the
Caribbean Consortium for Research in Environmental and Occupational Health (CCREOH)-MeKiTamara project in Suriname in 2016. She says, "Dr. Lichtveld has been an inspiration for me, not only to advance my career but also to give back to my country of origin."
Updated April 19, 2022
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