As an Earlham College junior studying abroad in Tanzania in 2009, Erika Phelps Nishiguchi ’10 mapped out a 10-year-plan in a journal. Then she got so busy that she forgot about it. Since her Earlham days, the years have been gobbled up by malaria research, a post-baccalaureate fellowship, med school, and yet more training and research.
Over the summer, nine years out of college, Nishiguchi completed a Fogarty Fellowship in Uganda and in the fall started a three-year Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics Fellowship specialist training at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“To be honest, at times I feel like I’ve been spinning my wheels, gone off track through medical training away from my initial goals and dreams,” she says.
Last year her parents found her 10-year-plan while cleaning out a barn. When she read it again, she realized she was right on track. “That felt like a huge relief, and it was a wake-up call to remind myself to treasure the process of developing myself into the most effective professional I can be for my career.”
The pediatrics fellowship in Seattle will allow her to be able to continue working with her global health research group at Indiana University and Makerere University, and it will also allow her to focus clinically on refugee and immigrant populations.
All a part of the plan for an intercontinental career, she says. The seeds of that career began in Africa when she was a child. She and her brother went to Uganda with her parents, who were there to do volunteer work. Before they left the U.S., they all received anti-malarial medicine.
While in Uganda, her brother and her best friend’s brother both contracted malaria. Thanks to preventive anti-malarial medicine, Nishiguchi’s brother experienced only mild, flu-like symptoms. Her best friend’s brother lost his life. Since that day, she has focused her life’s work into bringing attention, systems and funding to diseases plaguing the world’s poor.
“Malaria is where it all started, but there’s so much other stuff in rural areas,” she says. “I still have that big dream, but I tweak it as I learn more about myself and more about the world.”
During medical school at Michigan State’s College of Human Medicine, Nishiguchi also had the opportunity to spend time in her second and fourth years working to better understand malaria at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital and the Blantyre Malaria Project in Malawi.
“Now I work in Seattle, serving kids with medical problems from Alaska, Montana and Idaho,” she says. “All the complexities that are found in rural, international areas are in rural America as well.”
Nishiguchi, who has made many presentations of her work, is focused this year on publishing two projects. Getting some articles published will be a wonderful dividend for all her work, though the journey itself has been rewarding.
While at Earlham, Nishiguchi met her husband Ken ’11, spent two summers conducting malaria research at the National Institutes of Health, and was awarded a Project for Peace in Uganda, where she helped expand a grassroots organization to include health workshops and sustainable agriculture. After graduating from Earlham, Nishiguchi completed a yearlong NIH post-baccalaureate fellowship focused on emerging malaria parasite resistance to anti-malarials in Cambodia.
“The NIH lab experiences, the continuity in that lab and getting to work in their field sites, made me realize I wanted the patient connection even though I had the squeamish factor and was afraid that I couldn’t handle medical school,” she says. “I was convinced to give it a try, and I found that the patient connection is the most important part to me.”
Looking back, her success in finding ways to pursue her dreams has been remarkable.
“This is the part that really brings out my imposter syndrome,” she says. “I’ve had a ridiculous amount of success applying for funding, and I know that’s not typical.” Not typical, perhaps, but critically important.
“I simply could not fund this work myself.”
Nishiguchi went to public school in Tennessee before being funded through the Davis United World College Scholars Program to go to Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong and Earlham.
She’s immensely grateful for the support she’s been given. Nishiguchi often reminds herself of UWC philanthropist Shelby Davis’ tagline “learn, earn and return.” She wants her career to be focused more on returning than earning.
“I love collaboration, working with others and mentoring those coming behind,” she says. “I think often about building connections between Earlham students and UWC students in my work abroad. I want to involve students toward aspects of my project in Uganda so that they can build those early career skills that I had the opportunity to build. I keep asking myself how can I make the opportunities available.”