Fogarty Fellowship “Opened Doors” For UMN Doctor

Caleb Skipper, middle, was a 2019-20 Fogarty Fellow | Provided photo

Some doctors grow up knowing they want to work in the medical field. Caleb Skipper, MD, isn’t one of them.

Skipper said he didn’t like the idea of following in his father’s footsteps. In fact, his dad’s occupation made him deliberately think of other career options.

"Throughout high school, I didn't want to be a doctor. My dad is a physician, and I initially wanted to pave my own way,” said Skipper. 

But he changed his mind in college, discovering he had a knack for biology, physiology and anatomy. And he liked the subjects, too.

Skipper hasn’t looked back since. He’s an infectious disease physician and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School. And his interest in global health drove him to spend time living in East Africa to study HIV/AIDs-related infections.

One of those trips was taken as part of his Fogarty Fellowship in 2019, an experience he says helped him grow both as a physician and a researcher.

Caleb Skipper, MD, right, was a 2019-20 Fogarty Fellow. Skipper said the experience helped him become a better physician and researcher | Provided photo

The Fogarty Global Health Program (now called the LAUNCH Training Program) is supported by the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This prestigious fellowship program supports global health practitioners who have completed research across a wide spectrum of health themes, including infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, environmental health, policy and implementation science. 

The Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility is part of the Northern/Pacific Global Health Research Fellows Training Consortium, which operationalizes the fellowship program. 

As part of the fellowship, Skipper completed two projects. One involved determining the role Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) genes play in people with cryptococcal meningitis and whether they help fight the infection.

The other project had Skipper trying to determine whether cryptococcal meningitis patients with Cytomegalovirus (CMV) fared worse than those who had meningitis but not CMV.

“HIV-related cryptococcal meningitis is a really devastating disease,” said Skipper. “It has a 30 to 40 percent mortality rate, though we’ve made some really nice improvements on those numbers over the years with our studies.”

Skipper said the Fogarty Fellowship allowed him to build connections he wouldn’t have otherwise.

“I’ve had some promising things happen to me as an early career investigator and I think a big part of that is that people have gotten to know me and I’ve gotten to know them, and it’s opened up a lot of doors,” said Skipper.

Skipper emphasized the work of UMN Professor of Medicine David Boulware, MD, MPH, who mentored Skipper during his time as a Fellow. Boulware, said Skipper, is among one of the many people who have worked to develop a longstanding partnership between UMN and Makerere University’s Infectious Disease Institute, where Skipper completed his Fogarty work.

There’s a lot Skipper is proud of about his time in Uganda. But one thing that stands out is the capacity building that took place.

“One of the classic pitfalls of doing global health research is basically you extract the data out of the country, and I think someone has called this ‘helicopter research,’ where you drop in, you take the data and you chopper out,” said Skipper.

“We really care about finding ways to build the human resource capacity and making sure people have opportunities.”

One example is Skipper’s shared authorship on a paper with a Ugandan phlebotomist. The phlebotomist was the first author.

“It was pretty cool. A phlebotomist is usually not going to have the chance to write a first-authored paper. It got published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology,” said Skipper.

Skipper said the Fogarty experience helped him to sharpen his clinical skills and learn to operate in a low-resource setting.

He said his time in Uganda has forced him to rely more on his abilities and less on the technology available in high-income countries like the United States.

“As a doctor who wants to be able to take care of patients in the U.S. but also take care of patients here, it’s been a really valuable experience learning how to function in a low-resource setting, using your clinical acumen and judgment and relying on those skillsets and not just all the fancy tests that we have access to,” he said.

Skipper grew up in rural North Dakota, thousands of miles from Kampala. But the differences aren’t as pronounced as some might believe, he said.

He encourages others to travel to a different country if they’re lucky enough to do so.

“I wish that more people had these kinds of experiences just to basically broaden their worldview,” said Skipper. “You realize people are people everywhere and there’s a lot that crosses language and culture barriers.”