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Philanthropy: Big Questions

Philanthropy: Big Questions

How neurology research fellowships open doors to innovative research.

Sleep is like the steering wheel of a car, says Charlene Gamaldo, professor of neurology and medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep and Wellness. “The car can be fueled up and have everything else intact, but if the steering wheel is not there, it’s not going to go in the right direction.”

That’s how critical sleep is to the health of body and mind — and particularly in how it affects neurological conditions. Gamaldo, the first neurologist to complete a research fellowship in sleep medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in 2004–2006, has devoted her research to understanding how sleep disorders can impact everything from diseases like HIV and multiple sclerosis to recovery from opioid use.

She recalls a key question one of her mentors posed during her fellowship as she was deciding her next steps: “Everyone has a burning question — what’s yours?”

Says Gamaldo: “I realized my question is: How does sleep impact neurological disease, and how can treatment of sleep disorders, or promoting sleep health at the outset, provide neuro protection and promote overall health and wellness?”

Gamaldo is one of several neurology fellows who have remained at Johns Hopkins as the department doubled its clinical fellowship program to 40 annually, in its mission to advance global leaders in a variety of clinical subspecialty fields of neurology. The neurology department is closing in on its goal of raising $500,000 to provide the resources and flexibility to offer training opportunities consistent with the evolving field of neurology.

“In my case, I had no intention of going into academic medicine, and if it was not for the fellowship, I don’t think I’d be where I am right now,” Gamaldo says. “The fellowship gives folks who are open and inquisitive the opportunity to ask the scientific questions they want to ask and explore the potential unique avenues they can forge to get them closer to answering them.”

Gamaldo, who is the first Black faculty member to become a professor in the Department of Neurology and the 12th Black woman to be named professor at the school of medicine, says she was encouraged and supported by others at Johns Hopkins. She has worked to create the same welcoming environment for those who follow in her footsteps.

“I’ve been very lucky to have really great mentors but also sponsors who provided opportunities and advocated for me, and it feels like a calling to pay it forward,” she says.

She served for five years as co-director of the Neurology Core Clerkship, which prepares medical students for their time in clinical neurology. In addition, Gamaldo and Rachel Salas, assistant medical director of the Center for Sleep and Wellness, created a college pre-med program called the Johns Hopkins PreDoc program, which immerses college students in academic medicine through working on projects, sitting in on meetings, and more. And since 2015, Gamaldo has been the neurology department’s vice chair for faculty development.

Gamaldo believes it is vital to provide students, trainees and young faculty members with living examples of women and people of color in academic positions. She recalled the intimidation, early in her career, of walking into an Educational Policy and Curriculum Committee executive board meeting. The walls held painted portraits — “none of which looked like me, and felt symbolically like they were sort of peering down at me,” she says — to find then Vice Dean for Education David Nichols, who is Black, sitting at the head of the table.

“I won’t forget that feeling, to see somebody who looked like me in that position, and people looking to him as the captain leading the ship,” Gamaldo says. “To see that, that was very powerful for me.”

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To learn about how you can support the Department of Neurology’s clinical fellowship programs, visit: Bit.ly/JHMNeuroGive.

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