Meet 2019 Forward under 40 Award Recipient Kristin Kohlmann’13

UW Major: Genetics and Global Health
Age: 27 | Oakfield, Wisconsin | Blantyer, Malawi, Africa | Heidelberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
Clinical Research Coordinator, Washington University in Saint Louis and Project Peanut Butter (on sabbatical)

Kristin Kohlmann’s research on child and maternal health could mean a big breakthrough for treating acute malnutrition — one of the world’s leading causes of child death.

Since 2016, she’s been part of Project Peanut Butter, a nonprofit that serves families suffering from poor nutrition in rural Ghana, Malawi, and Sierra Leone. In recent years, she designed local networks to deliver ready-to-use therapeutic food to children from six months to five years old. Kohlmann has seen firsthand how the protein-rich food therapy can reverse the effects of malnutrition by boosting kids’ immunity and growth.

“I love being ‘on the ground’ and working directly with mothers and children,” Kohlmann has
written. “There is nothing better than seeing the program I developed actually reaching children with
acute malnutrition and helping them recover.”

Kohlmann traveled throughout Ghana, hiring local nursing staff
and volunteers and guiding day-to-day operations of 35 mobile clinics. More recently, she’s coordinated clinical trials across Malawi, seeking the best ways to deliver food therapy to kids with moderate and severe malnutrition.

Her research pursuits started with her upbringing in rural Wisconsin and
a deep curiosity about nature. It was at UW–Madison, Kohlmann says, that being part of a diverse community fueled her interest in bringing the promise of science to people in need.

“My sense of wonder spread beyond the hows and whys of the natural world,” she says. “I solidified my desire to engage with people, celebrate the diversity of humanity, and find greater meaning in the work I do.”

AmeriCorps gave Kohlmann her start in health care when she helped underserved patients in Milwaukee access low-cost medications. With the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City, she connected refugees with health services. Kohlmann’s quest for answers now continues in Germany: she’s earning a master’s degree in international public health and making plans for more field research in the years ahead.

Photo by Rebecca Roediger

Q&A with Kristin Kohlmann

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I have always turned to my mom when I need advice, and while the conversations change depending on the situation, it generally boils down to two concepts: “Do what feels like the right thing” and “Take ownership of your choices.” She also gave me a pendant that says, “Go with all your heart” that I now keep on my keyring.
What are you reading now?
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
What is the one thing every UW student must do?
There are so many things I think are essential to the UW experience, but if I had to pick just one, I would say every student should try to study abroad — it really changed my life and was such a period of personal growth for me. In second place, spend some summer nights with friends on the docks on Lake Mendota or having a bonfire at Picnic Point.
What advice would you offer to graduating seniors?
It’s good to have a plan of where you want to go or what you want to do in life, but don’t have blinders on as you go down your path. Be open and responsive to changes or unexpected opportunities. You never know if a detour from your original path will bring you to where you were meant to be all along.
What occupies your free time?
Right now, I don’t have much free time because I’m taking a very heavy class load and studying German. But when I do find time, I enjoy reading — my Kindle has been absolutely amazing with all the traveling I do. But since I have moved around so much the past few years, I really enjoy exploring new cities and countries and taking photographs.
What was your first job?
I was a cashier at the small-town gas station when I was 15.
What is your favorite quote?
“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Who is your hero, or who or what inspires you?
There are so many amazing men and women I look up to and admire, but my daily inspiration comes from those closest to me. My parents are huge sources of inspiration for me, as well as the people I’ve worked with in Malawi and Ghana. I especially [admire] the nurses and mothers who work hard so children can have the best possible future. One day in Malawi, the weather was absolutely miserable — it must have been about 45 degrees and raining, and we all headed to the clinic with pretty low expectations for the day. But when we got there, mothers and children were already waiting for us. They had walked hours — many of them barefoot — in the cold and rain to reach the clinic and have their children evaluated and treated for malnutrition. The dedication of the mothers to seeing their children recover will always stay with me and inspire me.
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m working on a master’s degree, and then I plan to return to field research working on more projects studying acute malnutrition in children. I’m also planning to pursue a PhD related to child health and international nutrition in the near future. But I’m trying to keep myself open to opportunities as they come!
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