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“How is it that life gets under our skin?” Introducing Michelle Munyikwa

Picture of Michelle MunyikwaThere don’t seem to be all that many PhD anthropologists who are also physicians. It’s a long, daunting road to get there: 12 years of study to be exact. Counting her Bachelor of Science, Michelle Munyikwa has passed the halfway mark.

Why she is deeply committed to this onerous dual track is as fascinating as the perspective evident in her writing. “Be vital. Be involved.” That’s the title of one of the first posts on her new blog. It’s also a good description of her.

I’m delighted that Munyikwa has agreed to guest blog here this month. One post is about being a medical student; a second, an anthropological perspective on trauma and racism. First, a personal interview.

HB: Where did you grow up?

MM: I was born in Zimbabwe. I came to the U.S. in 1995. I was five. We moved to New York City, and I spent my childhood in Knoxville Tennessee and Southern Delaware. I went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Right after I graduated from College I moved to Philadelphia to go to Penn for medical school.

Was being a doctor the first thing you wanted to be?

Both my parents are doctors. Growing up I wanted to do anything but. I thought of law school, becoming an English professor, being a writer. Throughout most of College I thought I would be a scientist. Even when I first applied to medical school I had the intention of having a science career.

What changed?

I discovered what I really liked about the research I was doing was the people in my lab. I didn’t like the day-to-day of biology research. I liked thinking through ideas and creating knowledge, but the actual physical process wasn’t what drove me.

Then why medicine?

Part of it was that I did a lot of things when I was in College: ran a student organization that packaged meals for food programs and disaster relief around the world, got involved in a student offshoot of Planned Parenthood. What really appealed to me was increasing health access, getting people health information: I realized that I’m really interested in helping people achieve health. I volunteered for a free clinic and I really liked that. I think what I liked about it was the population we were working with, and working directly with people – being part of creating a better world.

Where did the anthropology come in?

With the science classes I was doing anthropology as a double major. It’s how I think and how I see the world, the educational system itself. I just fell into anthropology naturally.

One of the things I’m trying to figure out in graduate school is how to actually make an impact with the work I do. There are some people who want to develop knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and what happens after that isn’t important to them. I don’t feel that way. I feel strongly if I don’t do things that affect people’s lives then I’ll be disappointed. As a medical student I have witnessed a lot of human suffering. For me, if I am asking people to share their life with me, it’s my responsibility to do something meaningful with that.

How did you become interested in stress for your undergraduate degree research?

My first research advisor had a project that I was really interested in. At the time, I was interested in proteins, molecular biology and cell biology. I really wanted to work in this lab with this professor, Lizabeth Allison. While I was working with her, we had a visiting scholar from a local historically black college, Shantà Hinton, and we got along very quickly. She asked me to work with her on a project she had been doing since she was a post-doc.

It wasn’t that I thought in my mind, “I want to study stress and I want to do it this way.” It was the people I was working with. And, it turns out, stress is interesting. People respond very differently to it.

What about the anthropology side? Did it change the way you think, or did you have an affinity for thinking that way?

I think it was probably a natural affinity. I feel like I have been anthropologically-oriented most of my life. I found people who think like me, and look at the world like I do.

You talk about women of color feminism on your blog and through Twitter. Can you tell us a bit about feminism in your life?

I would say that for a long time I identified as a feminist, and thought about gender and sexuality. But when I was growing up, my mother would say she felt that mainstream feminism wasn’t very representative of women of color or interested in issues for women of color. She said that when I was very young, and she said, “I want you to think about this.” It never really registered.

In the last year or two, I’ve become more aware of it and I now understand what she meant. Seeing all these women of color talking about these issues, reading texts on the legacy of black feminism, I think about how to have a more inclusive intersectional feminist perspective in my life and in my work.

Embodiment has a prominent place on your blog’s banner. What aspects interest you?

How is it that life gets under our skin? How is it that we experience trauma, stress or other factors that become a part of our bodies? I don’t know that I can say the first time that I became interested in that idea. At first I was interested in this at a molecular level. And part of me is still interested in biology, but I am now also interested in the intersection of the social with the biological.

When did you start writing and decide to start a blog?

I still have my first diary from when I was 8 years old. I have been constantly writing since then. I have had a blog for many years. I got my first one when I was 13. It’s not that I am new to blogging. It’s just the first time I am using my own name. There’s something about feeling that with my own name it has to be perfect, which has changed how I write. I decided to try to write more publicly because I thought it would benefit my career.

What got you interested in disability?

When I was in my first year in medical school, in the spring, I started having seizures. I was eventually diagnosed with epilepsy, and started taking medicine. That really just changed my life in many ways.

For one thing, I felt that I couldn’t remember as much as before. It was the first time in my life that I felt impaired. It was the first time I felt sick. Sometimes I would sleep for hours and hours a day. In that time, like many people, I went online. Most of my friends are very healthy, except for one who passed away that year. I had no one to talk to who understood, but there were online communities where people knew so much. That’s when I started trying to read more about disability and chronic illness at an academic level.

It’s hard for me to explain how my perspective shifted in life about what’s important, about how I talk to my patients. All I know is that despite having such a mild illness, it changed my life.

How would you describe the influence on your life of migrating from Zimbabwe?

I think it has had a huge impact on my life. My parents’ immigration status influenced so much – the places we went, the people we have encountered. We moved to Southern Delaware because my parents had to serve in an underserved area. I didn’t get my green card till I was almost in College. It was 15 years before we got our permanent residence. Being considered an international student is a big part of which College I went to. It affected a lot of areas of my life.

Photo of Michelle Munyikwa

Michelle Munyikwa is guest blogging at Absolutely Maybe this month. Her posts explore uncertainty and being a medical student, and trauma and the embodiment of racism in the United States. She studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and has her own blog at Michelle Munyikwa. You can follow her on Twitter: @mrmunyikwa.


With thanks to Danielle Lee, whose challenge to make Black History Month the month you start ensuring more under-represented scientists get heard was the impetus for me to finally follow SciCurious’ lead to do it by handing over the mic at SciAm blogs from time to time.

The portrait of Michelle Munyikwa is by Hilda Bastian.

* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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