When her PhD research project led to the discovery of a unique bacteria that might be responsible for triggering rheumatoid arthritis, Meagan Chriswell knew just what to call the newly discovered bacteria: subdoligranulum didolesgii (Suhb-doe-lih-gran-you-luhm dee-doe-les-ghee-eye), named after the Cherokee word for arthritis and rheumatism.
Chriswell, a seventh-year MD/PhD student in the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is part of the Cherokee tribe. She grew up in Northern Colorado, returning in the summers to visit family in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation capital.
Childhood interest and college experience
Fascinated with infectious diseases since childhood (“It’s kind of a weird thing for a kid to be interested in,” she says with a laugh), Chriswell studied biomedical science at Colorado State University, which is where her interest in medicine solidified.
“I got into a research lab in college that was led by a DVM/PhD in veterinary medicine, and he showed me a pathway forward for clinical medicine intersecting with basic science research that I found really fascinating,” Chriswell says. “No one else in my family went to college, so I had to set off on my own and figure out what I wanted to do.”
When Chriswell arrived on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, her interest in the human immune system inspired her to begin studying infectious diseases, then autoimmune diseases, which led her to the field of rheumatology.
“It’s a perfect blend of everything I like about the clinic — establishing long-term relationships with people and getting to help them with really complex diseases — and my research interests, which are autoimmune disease and the interplay between microbes in human immune systems,”Chriswell says.
Mentorship leads to impact
It was her research interest that led Chriswell to her work on the gut bacteria project in the lab of Kristine Kuhn, MD, PhD, associate professor of rheumatology and one of Chriswell’s mentors.
“Meagan did not shy away from the challenge we set in front of her during her first summer in the lab,” Kuhn says. “She first identified families of bacteria that were targeted by the antibodies,then set out to culture those bacteria and see if they could affect mice. I remember being on vacation when she called me with excitement: ‘Kristi, you won’t believe this, but the mice are getting arthritis!’ Despite the setback of the COVID pandemic and campus shutdown, Meagan really drove this project to completion and the publication. She is truly a rising star with a very bright future as a physician-scientist.”
Chriswell says she is grateful for the mentorship she has found at CU.
“Whenever I have had any kind of wild idea, I’ve always found people who are willing to take me under their wing,” she says. “With some of the diversity, equity, and inclusion projects that I’ve undertaken throughout the years, I’ve always found support and help among the students and the faculty in getting different projects off the ground.”
Advocating for Indigenous medical students
Those diversity, equity, and inclusion projects include helping to develop pipeline programs to encourage students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in medicine go to graduate school and medical school, working to create a community of Indigenous medical students at the CU School of Medicine, and being elected to the medical student section of the American Medical Association’s Committee on American Indian Affairs, where she has encouraged the AMA to support the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
“This was an act that first passed back in the 1970s to help keep Indigenous children within their own communities when foster care is needed,” Chriswell says. “If children need to be removed from their homes because of safety concerns, it prioritizes them being kept with extended family within their own tribal communities.”
The Supreme Court is due to rule on the constitutionality of the federal law this summer; thanks in part to Chriswell’s work, the AMA is urging the High Court to uphold ICWA to keep Indigenous youth connected to their families and culture.
“We were pushing for the AMA to back the expansion of ICWA at a national level, and they actually used quite a bit of our language in their amicus brief in the Supreme Court case,” Chriswell says. “I was just dipping my toe into policy work, then it kind of exploded.”