Maria Kim

Dr. Maria Kim earned her M.D. from Albert Einstein College of Medicine and completed her residency at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia. She is a newly promoted Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and concentrates her work in the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative at Texas Children’s Hospital (BIPAI). One of the many things that stand out on Dr. Maria Kim’s exceedingly impressive resume is her long, successful research track-record: she has spent the majority of the last 15 years working as a physician-scientist in Malawi, where she focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in sub-Saharan Africa. She has been the Principal or Co-Principal Investigator on over $19M in completed grants, is currently the PI or Co-PI on $75M in U.S. Government Funding alone (yes, you read that right), and has published over 30 scholarly peer-reviewed papers on key global health challenges. But while Dr. Kim knew early on that she wanted to practice in global health, she “never intended to have a career in research.” So how did she end up developing, implementing, and evaluating a large-scale, research-based HIV prevention and treatment program? The answer, really, is that Dr. Kim followed the work. When Dr. Kim was offered a place in BIPAI’s inaugural class, she jumped at it. “I was basically offered my dream job and was just finishing my residency in New York, so the timing was perfect,” she recalls. Still, she found her first month working as a clinician in Malawi in 2006 “shocking,” because, “in the US, children rarely die. But in Malawi, children died every day. And no matter how many hours we worked, that wasn’t changing. So we needed [to try] something else.” First, Dr. Kim significantly improved outcomes for malnourished HIV+ children by combining Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic-Food with timely antiretroviral therapy. Next, she and her husband, with whom Dr. Kim works closely, applied for funding to recruit lay health-workers to increase education and access to HIV care. In 2008, Tingathe (which means “Together We Can” in the local Chichewa language) was born. The word “Tingathe” aptly describes Dr. Kim’s approach not only to improving health outcomes in Africa, but to her own career. “My journey wouldn’t be possible without the incredible amount of support and help I have received from mentors, mentees, collaborators, colleagues, co-workers, team members, my family, and especially my husband.” Teamwork undoubtedly plays a key role not only in Tingathe’s continued success, but in Dr. Kim’s. Tingathe first tackled HIV transmission from mother to baby. “There was clear scientific evidence that, if HIV+ mothers take antiretroviral medication, their babies will likely be born HIV-free,” Dr. Kim explains. “But putting this protocol into practice was challenging given local constraints, so we needed to figure out how to implement it in real-world Africa.” Tingathe’s lay health-workers therefore began linking HIV+ pregnant women to the services they needed to avoid transmitting HIV to their infants. Although this work’s early results appeared promising, “I wanted to know for myself whether [Tingathe’s initial] program was working. So I started doing program-monitoring and evaluation, and decided that I wanted to test our interventions more thoroughly,” says Dr. Kim. Inspired to take her research skills to the next level, Dr. Kim enrolled in the research training program at BCM, and by all indications, never looked back; she earned her Masters of Clinical Investigation from BCM in 2015 and has been creating and evaluating global health interventions ever since. Currently, Dr. Kim and her team are working to improve the quality of patient HIV-counseling for Malawian families. As childhood HIV-prevention services rapidly expanded in Malawi, Dr. Kim noticed that health workers were stretched too thin, which caused the quality of patient counseling—and patient outcomes—to decline. So, Dr. Kim and her team curated a video-based intervention for HIV-positive pregnant women. “The video standardized the quality of counseling and includes behavioral components like positive messaging,” Dr. Kim explains. It also takes a substantial burden off of Malawi’s healthcare workers. Tingathe has not only changed HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in Malawi and beyond, but instilled in Dr. Kim an appreciation and love of what research can do. She remains “most passionate about implementation-science, or figuring out how to make evidence-based interventions work in a real-world setting.” She is equally passionate about “the young investigator program we started in Malawi to train young researchers to continue this work after I’m gone. That’s really rewarding because, at the end of the day, I think Africa really needs African researchers. Part of the reason I’ve been successful here is that I’ve been here a long time. But someone who can do [this work] even better is someone who’s grown up here and intuitively understands the context and culture,” she says. In fact, Dr. Kim hopes that contributing to the “growth of African researchers” will be part of her enduring legacy in research. “I hope some of my work impacts people in Africa and beyond.” (Note: it already has.) “But if the rest of my research isn’t, you know, seminal, I think feeling like I’ve contributed to the growth of investigators from [Africa]—to me that would mean a lot.” After all her myriad accomplishments, what’s next? Although Dr. Kim never in her wildest dreams imagined the life she has now, she is grateful for it. Living and working in Malawi, and raising her young family there, “has been amazing. I wish I could have told my younger self that life is about exploration, and that it’s OK to get things wrong and make mistakes along the way. I hope that I remain open, curious, and unafraid of not knowing exactly what’s coming.” This approach has certainly worked for Dr. Kim so far and made untold numbers healthier. We congratulate her on her success and can’t wait to see what lies ahead."