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May 24, 2013

Michael Boivin: Why I do what I do

May 24, 2013

Michael Boivin, associate professor in the departments of Psychiatry, and of Neurology and Ophthalmology, has spent more than two decades – including two years on Fulbright research fellowships – helping children in Africa affected by HIV, malaria and other diseases. He recently co-edited "Neuropsychology of Children in Africa" and is seen above on the left in Africa in 1991 and on the right in his office today on campus. 

When I was a first-year graduate student in a behavioral biopsychology laboratory in 1976, I never would have anticipated a career someday as a full-time public health researcher working with African children.

That pilgrimage began that same year when I met my future wife, Grace, who had planned to return to Africa with the Peace Corps after finishing university. Grace grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where her father served for 35 years as a medical missionary and her mother as a school teacher. Through our courtship and marriage, Grace’s upbringing in the Congo was an intriguing part of her past, but not relevant to my scientific and professional career goals at that time. Her return to Africa was put on hold as we married and began a family and as I settled into a career as a university psychology professor.

A decade into our marriage and four children later, Grace’s African past suddenly came to the forefront of our family life. She wanted to return as a family to Africa so we could see her childhood home and the legacy of her parents’ lifelong service before their retirement the following year. I did not want to travel to the Congo with our four young children, fearing for our health and safety. But with a small overseas research grant and the generosity of Grace’s parents, we were able to stay a month at the remote medical mission of Moanza where they lived, on the Inzia River in Bandundu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then known as Zaire.

While traveling that month to public health outposts with Grace’s father, I encountered a level of human need and suffering that I could never have imagined. That’s when I decided to use whatever tools or skills I had to make a difference in addressing that need, to find a way to make my scientific passion relevant to the needs of these children.

And that’s what I’ve done ever since. My work focuses on understanding African children’s neuropsychology – that is, the relationship between the physical structure of their brains, cognition, and behavior. Children in Africa face an astounding array of risks to their development, stemming from grinding poverty and from the myriad public health and educational challenges afflicting most of the continent. This population provides fertile ground for the study of how neuropsychological development reflects both vulnerability and resilience in the face of impoverishment, war, displacement and disease. This is the principal scientific motivation for my work at MSU. But my scientific goals are only part of the story.

More importantly, my research is compelled by humanitarian necessity and compassion. Only by better understanding African children’s neuropsychology can researchers discover effective ways to protect them from significant harm and enhance their potential to not only survive, but thrive. Of course, such advances will benefit not only African children, but children everywhere.

That’s why I do what I do.


Read more about Boivin's work:

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