Q&A with Cheryl Moyer, Associate Director, Global REACH; Associate Professor, University of Michigan Medical School

We spoke with Cheryl Moyer, Associate Director, Global REACH; Associate Professor, University of Michigan Medical School, the 2021 recipient of the Mid-Career Leadership Award by the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, and one of the members of our 2020 Leadership Journey. Read our Q&A to learn about her Leadership Journey project, who inspires her, and how she works to center women and girls in COVID-19 recovery.


What is your Leadership Journey Project and why did you choose it?

I am part of a Fogarty International Center (FIC)-funded training grant that provides pre-and post-doctoral fellows with mentored, year-long research projects in a handful of partner countries around the world. Over the past 10 years, many women have been selected as fellows for this program, yet we don’t see women climbing the ranks in global health research at the same rate as men. Through my WomenLift Health project, I’m trying to craft a mentorship program akin to WomenLift Health’s, with more of a targeted focus on women in academic research, especially in LMICs where there are not as many women leading academic global health research efforts. As you can imagine, climbing the ranks is a difficult path to envision when there aren’t leaders necessarily looking out for you.

My aim for this project is to assess what the perceived needs are and what value this mentorship program could generate by building cohorts of women who were once Fogarty fellows and then transitioned into an academic research role. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can leverage their expertise and experience, and even take what I’ve learned through WomenLift Health, and translate it into a replicable mentorship model. I chose this project because I have seen and benefited from good mentorship, and I feel strongly about the impact it can have on young women as they begin and continue their careers. While mentorship is a need in the U.S., it can be even more profound for women in low-resource settings, so trying to address that gap would be extremely gratifying for me.


What has surprised you about the WomenLift Health Leadership Journey experience?

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how well Zoom would work for this type of program. Surprisingly, it’s been really effective in helping to create relationships and a sense of belonging. I truly feel like I know the women in my cohort.

I fully expected to be blown away by how brilliant everyone is, and I expected to be repeatedly in awe of all the work these amazing women are doing, but I didn’t expect to feel such kinship. We’re all coming to this program from different places and with various approaches and solutions, but we’re all in this together – and that part feels really good.

I’m also surprised by the amount of self-reflection this program has generated. I like to think of myself as an introspective person and that I’m fairly aware of my own decision-making processes. Even still, every session has made me think about something differently and question some of the assumptions I had going in. That disruption was a surprise to me – I’ve enjoyed the consistent, but gentle challenging of assumptions.


How has COVID shifted the focus of your work?

COVID-19 has changed my work in countless ways, but perhaps most interesting to me is the opportunity to work on research exploring the impact of COVID-19 on pregnant women. In March of 2020, a pregnant colleague was receiving a lot of mixed (and alarming!) messages around what she should or shouldn’t be doing during the pandemic. So as research-oriented faculty members in OBGYN, we decided to turn her experience into a research question. We pulled together a set of surveys to measure the experience pregnant women had and continue to have during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data including not only their experience of care (how pregnancy affected prenatal care, the birth plan, delivery, postnatal care), but also the impact on women’s mental health and the differential impact on women of color. This research is focused more on the social and cultural factors playing out, rather than the clinical aspects of COVID-19. We found that women are pretty anxious, not surprisingly. It’s clear that women need extra support and that, depending on where you’re located, what coverage you have, who your provider is, etc., your experience of care could look very different.

We also worked with colleagues in Ghana to implement the survey there, and many women report skipping their prenatal care visits because they’re afraid of getting infected if they go to the facility. What that says to me is there are downstream effects of COVID-19 far beyond the virus itself. In the years to come, it’ll be interesting to see how immunization rates, family planning uptake or even trust in the system will be affected. Although my work has focused primarily on the impact of COVID-19 on pregnant women, it has also opened up Pandora’s box into the many downstream effects of COVID-19.


How can we ensure that women are at the center of not only COVID recovery plans but also long-term strategies for the improvement of health?

We know that women make up the majority of healthcare providers around the world. We also know that women are often anchors of their families and communities. To me, it seems that women are very well-positioned to understand what it’s going to take to move past COVID-19 and make better health decisions as individuals and as a community. Yet, those women aren’t at the table. Often when there is discussion about having women at the table, that translates to a select few, well-educated, often white women.  Those aren’t always the women who need to be at the table. I’m talking about the women who run the COVID-19 testing clinic in their communities or the women delivering meals during lockdown. The women who know their communities. For too long, there have been high-level people removed from the frontlines making critical decisions without necessarily understanding or anticipating the unintended consequences. We need to get people with more real-world experiences on the frontlines to inform the decision-making. And often, these people are women. That’s what I think, and the next step is trying to figure out a way to “ensure” it. I am afraid we all have lots of ideas about what the ideal state ought to look like, but the challenge is the pathway to getting there.


Who inspires you?

There are so many people who inspire me, and many people who inspire a lot of us. Someone like Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris – obviously extraordinarily brilliant women who are making a difference every day.

The person who came to my mind is someone who I have thought about a lot and yet is somewhat of an unsung hero throughout this pandemic madness – Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan. She endured death threats and an enormous amount of blowback for the lockdown requirements and the masking she insisted on early in the pandemic before any other states, and still maintains after other states loosened up restrictions. If you look at the rates, Michigan has been trending really well. There was a time when the whole country was one color on the COVID dashboard maps, but Michigan was the only state with a lighter color, indicating lower infection rates. Somehow, she has managed to stick to her guns and ignore the people who treated her with such vitriol to still come out of this and say, “Mask up Michigan, we’re doing well and we’re going to get through this.” That woman inspires me.