Staff Spotlight: Dr. Felana Ihantamalala
Dr. Felana Ihantamalala likes to take a morning walk to start her day off right. Having moved to Ifanadiana District from Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo, she has developed an extra appreciation for the cleansing effects of fresh rainforest air. It was also upon relocating to work for PIVOT that Felana came to truly comprehend just how isolated so many communities are in rural Madagascar. Taking time to physically navigate the local geography on foot allows her to reflect on some of the challenges faced by the population we serve – the very issue that occupies much of her time as key member of the PIVOT research team.
In March 2018, Felana joined PIVOT as a health geographer. She explains that, “from a very young age, I’ve always looked for ways to improve my environment and create positive change in the world via the research I do. After completing my studies, working for a respected humanitarian organization like PIVOT was the next step toward achieving this goal.”
Felana came on board under the supervision of Dr. Andres Garchitorena, one of PIVOT’s Associate Scientific Directors and a faculty member at l’Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD). IRD supported the research she conducted at the start of her time with PIVOT, which culminated in a presentation on modeling geographic accessibility to care that, just this past November, gained Felana recognition at the Conference on Public Health Research in the Indian Ocean. Her poster won first prize, making her the first person from outside a French territory to receive the conference’s honor.
Felana accepts the prize for best poster presentation on stage at the second annual Conference on Public Health Research in the Indian Ocean, November 2019.
“As an internationally trained Malagasy PhD with expertise in health geography,” Andres says, “Felana has proven to be an incredible asset to our team. Her deep commitment to global health and social justice will only continue to help advance PIVOT’s mission.”
Prior to bringing her skills to PIVOT, Felana’s track record paints a picture of an aspiring academic in pursuit of developing skills she could apply to improving health outcomes for vulnerable populations – from her Bachelors in Scientific Studies & Mathematics, to her Masters in Applied Geophysics, to her Doctorate from l’Unité Mixte de Recherche Espace pour le Développement à la Réunion, where she studied the dynamics of malaria in Madagascar through the lens of health geography.
It was in 2016, while still pursuing her PhD, that she first crossed paths with PIVOT as a participant in our first conference on Ecological & Epidemiological Modeling in Madagascar (known as E2M2). This intensive interdisciplinary event, which PIVOT hosts annually in collaboration with various partners, aims to cultivate skills among Malagasy researchers working in related fields. There, she was exposed to a week of “interactive lectures and computer-based tutorials […] to fine-tune model-based research questions, develop clear model frameworks and corresponding equations, and fit models to real-world data.” Incidentally, Madagascar’s current Minister of Health, Pr. Julio Rakotonirina, was also introduced to PIVOT at a later iteration of this event, which he attended as a participant.
Since joining the PIVOT team, Felana has played an integral role in the development of a project to map over 1,000 miles of footpaths in Ifanadiana District using a platform called Open Street Maps. Combined with topographical data, this allows us to identify, with a great level of detail, the actual physical burden that patients and health workers face when moving between health facilities and their home communities. In turn, we can better understand the impact of geography and the environment on health and access in space and time, and ensure our programs are optimized for impact.
Felana presents to research peers and partners about findings on geographical barriers to care in Ifanadiana District extracted from the Open Street Maps project during our semi-annual Crucible for Planetary Health event, May 2018.
Today, Felana is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, where she works under the mentorship of Dr. Matt Bonds, who is on faculty in the department, is one of PIVOT’s co-founders, and serves as our Scientific Director. Still stationed at PIVOT’s Ranomafana office, this appointment has drawn Felana’s focus specifically toward geographic barriers that prevent pregnant women and mothers from accessing primary care. Her aim is to help our clinical teams understand whether our initiatives to increase mothers’ utilization of primary care services are moving the needle on maternal health in the district, and why (or why not).
Matt explains, “Felana embodies the qualities that we see as special in PIVOT – bringing a highly trained, nontraditional skillset to the field, and tackling old problems (health inequity) with fresh ideas and broad perspective that translates directly into higher quality care for the most marginalized communities.”
Felana says that one of the things that makes her proudest to work for PIVOT is the uniqueness of the organizational goal to transform Ifanadiana District into a model health system for the country. On top of that, her growing network of peers – be they disease ecologists in Madagascar or health geographers abroad – have led her to discover “just how good PIVOT’s results really are” as compared with other initiatives in international development.
Beyond the content of her everyday work, Felana’s fierce belief in PIVOT’s mission and evident commitment to the PIVOT values has made her an invaluable addition to the team. Citing the “pursuit of learning” as the value that resonates most with her, she explains that she is “always looking for new approaches to answer complex questions. Starting from a specific objective, I like to try various methods and look to innovate ways to improve our work.” With the great emphasis PIVOT places on rigorous data analysis and scientific research, Felana’s unswerving pursuit of learning makes her the embodiment of the perfect PIVOT research team representative – both internally among colleagues as well as to partners and collaborators pursuing similar goals worldwide.
With gratitude for all that Felana has contributed to advancing PIVOT’s mission thus far, we look forward to seeing what lessons her research will yield next, and using them to continue improving access to quality care for remote populations, both in Ifanadiana District and around the world.