Closing gaps in women’s health research

Walstrom Family creates endowed fund to foster next generation of women’s health leaders

Mari Margaret and Ward Walstrom with two inaugural student awardees of the Walstrom Family Endowed Women’s Health Research Fund:  Roksolana Sudyk (left) and Shannon Harkins (right).

Closing gaps in women’s health research

Walstrom Family creates endowed fund to foster next generation of women’s health leaders

There is a gender gap in medicine.

Not just when it comes to symptoms—which present differently in women than they do in men—or to the prevalence of certain diseases and conditions but also with regard to diagnosis and treatment.

According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health, women account for nearly 78% of patients with autoimmune disease and are more likely to have chronic pain. The time between symptom onset and eventual diagnosis can be much longer for women than it is for men.

To close the gap between women’s health research and other scientific disciplines, Ward and Mari Margaret Walstrom of Harbor Springs have made a $1 million gift to bolster education and research in the MSU College of Human Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology.

Ward, a graduate of MSU, and Mari Margaret Walstrom, have long been engaged with MSU and its programs. But their gift stems from firsthand experience with the harm gaps in women’s health care knowledge can cause, as their daughter suffered years of undiagnosed health issues.

“Maybe this is just one little puzzle piece, to help solve the problem thousands of women across the world are experiencing: years of horrible pain with no answers or relief,” said Mari Margaret Walstrom. “We see this as a starting point to spare others from suffering...we have to start somewhere, to give women hope.”

The Walstrom Family Endowed Women’s Health Research Fund is creating an early-career training program to increase the number of scientists and clinicians pursuing a lifelong career focused on women’s health care and research.

“We are grateful for the support of Ward and Mari Margaret Walstrom, which will inspire the next generation of medical clinicians and researchers in women’s health,” said MSU President Kevin M. Guskiewicz, Ph.D. “Their gift will provide greater access to resources and opportunities and will hasten the pace of bringing health innovation to improve women’s lives.”

The program pairs medical and graduate students with research teams and will support independent research projects. Four College of Human Medicine early-career graduate students, including one third-year medical student, were recently selected and awarded the funds; each will utilize the Walstroms’ financial support to push forward current research projects, which would not have been possible otherwise.

“It is our desire to support MSU’s research in women’s health, including causes and cures for pelvic pain, and potential relationships and effects of drugs suppressing the immune system,” Ward Walstrom added.

To help further engage the West Michigan and MSU communities in critical women’s health issues and challenges, the fund will also sponsor lectureships, symposia and presentations featuring national and international leaders in women’s health research.

“One in ten women are facing inflammatory pain and other uterine challenges, and the Walstroms’ commitment provides a path of inspiration for others to make a difference at the college,” said College of Human Medicine Dean Aron Sousa. “Our shared hope is that their generosity leads to new science and new scientists who make the world better for women everywhere who are suffering.”

The Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology was ranked number one in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2023, according to a recent Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research Report.

Among 67 universities, the department has been in the top five of its peer institutions for many years and moved to the top spot last year.

One reason for the high ranking, College of Human Medicine Dean Aron Sousa said, is the college’s partnership with Henry Ford Health, whose researchers collaborate with the college’s scientists and are included as MSU faculty.

 

MEET THE CHANGE-MAKERS

Roksolana Sudyk and Shannon Harkins
Roksolana Sudyk and Shannon Harkins

The impact the Walstrom’s gift will have on women’s health was the topic of a recent MSU Today podcast with Professor and Chair of the Dept. of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Health Dr. Richard Leach and two of the four inaugural Walstrom research fund recipients.

Shannon Harkins is a genetics and genome sciences Ph.D. candidate who will use the funding in her research exploring the role of a gene in endometrial cancer. She previously worked at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital and became committed to working to understand the increase in aggressive cancers and disparities in outcomes for minority populations.

Roksolana Sudyk, a future Spartan M.D., is using the funding in a research project to understand the benefits and risks in the use of acetaminophen, such as over the counter Tylenol, in treating chronic pain during pregnancy. She talks about how her career has been influenced by her own experiences with chronic pain from endometriosis.

LISTEN to the full podcast

LEARN MORE about support for the College of Human Medicine by contacting Senior Director of Development Karen Weber at weberk16@msu.edu or by calling (616) 234-2827.

Author: Lois Furry, '89