One-Two Punch for Public Health: Minne and Martha Iwamoto '91
Minne and Martha Iwamoto '91 share passion for improving health around the world.
Growing up, identical twins Minne and Martha Iwamoto shared a bedroom, a bicycle and a car. By the time they were ready to leave home, they did not intend to share a college. When Davidson became their shared top choice, they had a decision to make: Both followed their hearts and chose Davidson … but they decided to get new roommates.
The sisters earned scholarships from Davidson—the Fletcher Music Scholarship for Minne and the George F. Baker Scholarship for Martha—and they both earned a master’s in public health from Emory University, first Minne, and then Martha, after completing medical school and pediatrics training.
Today, the sisters from Georgia continue to follow their hearts—hearts committed to the service and well-being of people in the United States and around the world. They chose to become public health professionals, but that’s where the career path similarities end.
Field Work Around the Globe
When Minne Iwamoto expressed her interest in public health to her supervisors at the Dean Rusk International Studies Program, where she was completing her work study job, they put her in touch with Kathy Bray '85, who was working with CARE International in Atlanta. It was during her internship there, learning about the organization’s work with emergency relief programs and long-term development planning, that Minne decided to focus on health. She quickly homed in on a disease called elephantiasis, also known as lymphatic filariasis (LF), which causes enlarged and hardened limbs or body parts due to tissue swelling. She first saw the disease when traveling in India and has since dedicated her career to confronting neglected infectious diseases around the world.
As the director of tropical disease partnerships for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Minne works closely with NGOs and communities to support efforts to fight diseases like malaria and LF, while also strengthening health systems. Before the pandemic, she was a frequent flyer on trips to London and also to countries endemic with tropical diseases.
“There are communities where parents live in fear every day that their babies could die if they are bitten by a mosquito,” she says. “Health is a fundamental right, and so many are suffering.”
The personal stories and relationships remind her of the importance of the work.
“It’s a privilege that I can travel and get to know patients on a personal level,” she says. “I have been welcomed into the homes of patients suffering from elephantiasis, and I have met their children and their children’s children. It is comforting to know the younger generations are safer because of the work we’re supporting.”
Minne invited documentary filmmaker and fellow Wildcat Mary Olive Smith ’88 to join her in the field, including on a trip to see school-based deworming programs supported by the government of Ghana and GSK’s donations.
“There, we met and helped children suffering from intestinal worms, but they remain hopeful through all their challenges,” Minne says. “Those children are an inspiration to me; one schoolgirl I met plans to become a doctor and help others in her community.”
The gap between available healthcare services, treatments and patients looms large in parts of the world lacking basic infrastructure.
To help communities respond to malaria, Minne’s team supports countries and NGOs running local awareness programs that encourage people to go to health facilities and seek treatments. They work with the healthcare providers in the communities they serve to set up health information systems and report health information.
In Tanzania, for example, the Ministry of Health led the distribution of donated medications on a large scale and brought elephantiasis patients in for treatment. Prevention of transmission between mosquitoes and humans is a large part of the elimination strategy. To date, 17 countries have successfully eliminated LF as a public health problem.
The pandemic grounded Minne’s team, but despite the challenges of working remotely with communities around the world, their efforts remain laser focused.
“To someday say I was involved in eliminating the disease entirely would be amazing,” she says.
Pediatrics to Public Health
While Minne is eager to get back to traveling, Martha Iwamoto’s work rarely requires a trip to the airport. She is a medical epidemiologist, having spent most of her career working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and more recently at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene—the largest health department in the country. Her interest: the impact of infectious diseases on vulnerable populations.
“After medical school and residency, I practiced pediatrics for three years, but I always kept an eye open to research interests and public health,” she says. “This took me to the Center for Disease Control for 14 years.”
At CDC, Martha first trained in the area of applied epidemiology as an epidemic intelligence service officer—the staffers known as “disease detectives”—and then worked as a medical epidemiologist in emerging infectious diseases and vaccine-preventable diseases.
If you’ve read about an outbreak in the past few decades, she probably worked on it—West Nile, food-borne diseases, Ebola and Influenza. In New York City, she has focused on Zika virus infections, measles and COVID-19.
Just this spring, she changed roles and joined the vaccine clinical research and development team at Pfizer.
Martha embraces the differences between public health and clinical medicine. She’s passionate about the ways in which science can promote and improve health and well-being among entire populations.
“Through epidemiology, we can understand how to find causes of health outcomes and diseases,” she says. “We analyze data to understand overarching population health issues, and then use that information to try to intervene effectively.”
When Martha moved to NYC four years ago, she was not anticipating the impact of a virus like COVID-19, but with her background, she recognized early on the potential magnitude of the virus and understood how it could affect populations if not managed.
“What interests me most is understanding why people are getting sick,” she says, “and using the right scientific evidence to prevent further illness.”
Although they were close growing up, the Iwamoto sisters’ bond grew at Davidson. Over time, they became best friends. Their Davidson friend group was largely the same, and they both took full advantage of opportunities to expand their world views during those formative years.
“I learned about serious disparities around the world, and I wanted to do something to help address them,” she says. “Davidson impelled us to be curious, to learn, understand, and ask questions. Professors inspired us to make a meaningful difference.”
Martha arrived on campus unsure of her path; the economics major became interested in studying medicine during her senior year. Her study abroad experience took her to France.
“My view of the world became much bigger as a result of Davidson,” she says. “I appreciated the opportunity to learn how to read, write, and think critically; humanities really rocked my world. I’m grateful for Davidson for so many reasons, most especially for professors and friends that encourage a lifelong love of learning and service.”
When the sisters turned 50, a dozen Davidson friends, led by Susan Majors Flynn ’91, traveled to Poland to work on a Habitat for Humanity project. No surprise their milestone celebration was about service to others.
“There is a spirituality among Davidson alumni,” Minne says, “and I am grateful.”
“It’s exciting when you cross paths with another Davidson grad,” she says. “There’s something special there.”
This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2021 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.