IU School of Medicine faculty member in pediatric global health named to IBJ’s ‘Forty Under 40’
Kenyan runner and Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge is the world record holder for the fastest marathon. Megan McHenry, MD, MS, may not be in the same class as Kipchoge, but she is a former collegiate athlete who has completed several marathons of her own and now runs on the same hills where Kipchoge lives whenever she’s in Kenya—working tirelessly to improve care for children with neurodevelopmental disorders.
It's fair to say Kipchoge and McHenry both know something about teamwork and stamina. Her efforts in Kenya epitomize the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together.”
“It’s actually AMPATH’s mantra,” said McHenry, referring to the Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH), a partnership between Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya, and a consortium of universities around the world led by Indiana University.
McHenry is an associate professor of pediatrics, co-director of the Morris Green Physician Scientist Development Program and director of pediatric global health education at IU School of Medicine. She recently was named to the Indianapolis Business Journal’s 2023 Forty Under 40, recognizing professionals who have demonstrated leadership and initiative beyond what would be expected in their early careers.
“She has truly found her passion in working to improve the lives of children and adolescents facing neurodevelopmental challenges and is a role model for creating equitable and sustainable global health collaborations,” said Kara Wools-Kaloustian, MD, research director for the IU Center for Global Health Equity. As McHenry’s primary research mentor during her NIH fellowship done in partnership with AMPATH in 2016-17, Wools-Kaloustian has watched McHenry’s career flourish along with her growing research aspirations.
Embracing reciprocal innovation, McHenry works with colleagues around the globe to coordinate simultaneous pilot programs in Kenya and rural Indiana with the goal of developing a caregiver curriculum for children living with autism, a project funded through a grant from the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI). She is also co-leading efforts to open a pediatric neurodevelopmental clinic in Eldoret with Kenyan colleague Eren Oyungu, MBChB, chair of the Department of Medical Physiology at Moi University and head of the Division of Pediatric Neurology at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital.
“A lot of the problems families face around the world are shared, and we can learn from each other,” McHenry said.
‘Extraordinary heart’ for Kenyan children with developmental delays
McHenry received her first major research award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in September 2018—two weeks after giving birth to twins. She and her husband, anesthesiologist Adam McHenry, MD, already had two other children, making them a family of six.
The funded project piloted a neurodevelopmental screening program for children born to HIV-infected mothers in Kenya. Oyungu remembers McHenry traveling to Eldoret to work on the program while very pregnant with the twins.
“This was not just dedication and love but sacrifice for a greater cause beyond oneself,” Oyungu said. “Improving care of children with neurodevelopmental disorders is an area that receives little attention in our region.”
Today, McHenry is the principal investigator on four NIH grants totaling more than $3.5 million.
“That children remain healthy and reach their full potential has been at Dr. Megan's heart,” Oyungu said. “To have traveled so many miles away from home to initiate this work and to have sustained it over time makes her extraordinary.”
She travels to Kenya quarterly, staying two weeks at a time, which is “the most my family can handle,” said McHenry, whose children now range in age from 4 to 8.
One of her children recently drew a picture of “mom at work” that showed her simply sitting at a computer. When she’s in Indianapolis, she stays in contact with her international team virtually, but McHenry is looking forward to the day her family joins her on a Kenya trip so her children can gain a better understanding of her work there.
“When the neurodevelopmental clinic opens, my family will come for the first time, so the kids can see the fruits of what takes me away from them,” McHenry said.
Her children help her maintain a balanced life, she added. They command her full attention on evenings and weekends, which McHenry says is good for someone like herself who can lean toward nonstop work—especially when it’s deeply fulfilling.
“Dr. McHenry has seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm for her work, and this attracts new donors and supporters to her efforts in Kenya and elsewhere,” Wools-Kaloustian noted.
One of those supporters is Tonia Hassinger, AMPATH development board member. When McHenry first shared the vision she and Oyungu had for building a pediatric neurodevelopment clinic in western Kenya, McHenry said she thought it would take 15-20 years to raise the funds. Now, just three years later, the Wezesha Watoto Clinic is well on its way, thanks to project collaborators, investors and a generous gift from Tim and Tonia Hassinger.
“Wherever Megan is, she is connecting and inspiring others to use their gifts, talents and resources to enhance the lives of those with fewer resources,” Tonia Hassinger said. “Megan’s intelligence, persistence and charm is only outweighed by her heart.”
The success of the neurodevelopment clinic requires community outreach to obtain buy-in from a culture where there is significant stigma attached to having a child with a disability—many Kenyan parents hide away children with developmental delays. McHenry wants them to know their children can be helped with early intervention. Her team is building relationships with village leaders and providing communities with accurate information about autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
Rebecca McNally Keehn, PhD, MA, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at IU School of Medicine and a clinical psychologist at IU Health Riley Hospital for Children, is one of the many experts McHenry has recruited to join the effort. Her first visit to Kenya was in September 2022.
“I had never envisioned doing global health work before joining the collaboration with Dr. McHenry,” said McNally Keehn, a specialist in autism spectrum disorder. “Dr. McHenry is a true leader in that she develops collaborative teams in which all members have unique but synergistic skills and areas of expertise.”
The challenges of parenting a child with autism and the consequences of poor access to needed health services are universal, said McNally Keehn. She credits McHenry with teaching her the value of approaching global health projects with “an open and inquisitive mind” for maximum benefit to all partners.
“The lessons we are learning in Kenya and from the Kenyan research team have undoubtedly shaped the way that I think about health services innovation here in Indiana,” she said.
Kindness coupled with keen project management skills
Although she is still early in her career, McHenry is intentional about mentoring and training up the next generation of physician leaders in global health.
“I love mentoring residents and students—it’s energizing and exciting,” she said. “We have two students who have been here over the last year working on projects, and there are two Slemenda Scholars that are coming this summer and will be working on projects with me as well.”
IU medical student Mary Ann Etling spent a year pursuing research and advocacy work in Kenya under McHenry’s mentorship through a grant from the Medical Student Training Applied to Research (MedSTAR) program. She is currently coordinating three projects, each with Swahili names—the Tabiri Neonatal Study, the Lisilojulikana Film-Intervention Study (gauging the perception of disability in the community) and The Kusoma Project, a collaborative effort to create a children's book with a Kenyan author and illustrator to be sold as a fundraiser.
“I would not be where I am without the extraordinary mentorship and investment of Dr. Megan McHenry,” said Etling, who is pursuing a master’s of public health alongside her MD and was recently named to IUPUI’s Premier 10. “She has taught me so much about the technical aspects of conducting global health research from start to finish, as well as the more personable aspects such as hiring a research team, supporting and celebrating their efforts, and listening to your team.”
McHenry models aspects of her mentorship after several of her own mentors in global health, including Wools-Kaloustian, Rachel Vreeman, MD, the former AMPATH North American Director of Research, and Chandy John, MD, MS, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases and global research at IU School of Medicine.
“I have learned so much from people who are much wiser than me, who have helped me understand more about the world and how to meaningfully engage with others with different life experiences from my own,” McHenry said. “It has enriched my life so much.”
John calls McHenry’s time management and project management skills “among the best I’ve seen for any faculty member.”
“Our whole division is in awe of these skills,” he said, adding that McHenry also possesses a brilliant mind and a caring and collaborative nature.
“I cannot tell you how many stories I’ve heard from others about her thoughtfulness,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure to support such a stellar faculty member.”
As co-director of the Morris Green Scholars Program in residency along with Andrew Schwaderer, MD, McHenry is pioneering the development of equitable international education partnerships and attracting top caliber residents to the program, John added. In 2022, she received the Trustees’ Teaching Award for her contributions to medical education.
In addition, McHenry has co-authored over 35 academic publications and published 47 peer-reviewed publications, noted Adrian Gardner, MD, associate dean for global health at IU School of Medicine and director of the IU Center for Global Health Equity. McHenry serves on the executive committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Global Health and has lectured at international conferences, including talks in Colombia, Pakistan and Kenya.
In Indianapolis, McHenry has worked with the Burmese American Community Institute on several projects to improve access to health care. She coordinated an exhibit for The PhotoVoice Project at the Harrison Center depicting the daily life of Burmese refugees—then used the information she gathered from refugee families to develop educational modules for local primary care physicians to help them provide better care to the Burmese community.
“My mom is from South Korea, so I’ve always been interested in the world,” said McHenry, who grew up in the southern Indiana town of Floyds Knobs and traveled abroad to see her Korean relatives for the first time when she was an infant.
McHenry is the first in her family to become a physician, but she credits her parents with demonstrating care for others through their community volunteerism.
Looking beyond the notable impact of her current projects, McHenry emphasizes the importance of building infrastructure for sustainability. She would like to see the pediatric neurodevelopmental program in western Kenya expanded throughout Kenya and to other Sub-Saharan African nations.
“I think Megan can do anything,” said John of her rising career trajectory. “I see her as a great force for good for the children of Kenya and for all children in low-income countries. I think her neurodevelopment research and implementation of care will lead to better outcomes for children in Kenya, across Africa and beyond. I’m very excited to see what the next 10 years, and then the 10 after that, hold for her and her work.”