MS, Climate Change and Kiribati

The date was October 24, 2007.

It was my second year at the University of Pittsburg’s Anthropology Ph.D. program when MS hit. Within minutes of arriving at the school’s Halloween festival, I lost my vision, ability to talk and walk. Rushed to the hospital, I was diagnosed with MS and placed on a disease-modifying therapy, Avonex, within hours.

A few days later, with vision restored, I met my Ph.D. advisor.

“Well Mike, what are we going to do?”

I had no idea. The diagnosis annihilated any chance of completing my original long-term research plans in the Pacific Island Nation of Kiribati. I first went to the Pacific Island Nation of Kiribati as a Peace Corps Volunteer. While there, a host relative passed away from mysterious health complications. I eventually learned he passed away from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS. Two years after completing Peace Corps service, I returned to the country to work with the National HIV/AIDS Taskforce. I applied to the Ph.D. program with intentions of returning to continue my work with the National HIV/AIDS Taskforce and UNAIDS.

MS changed everything. Avonex required refrigeration, transportation and electricity. None of which were reliably available in Kiribati.

My advisor continued his questioning.

“Is there anything else you would want to do?”

“Maybe,” I thought to myself.

Throughout my time in Kiribati, I noticed significant environmental changes. The tides were getting higher, the droughts longer and the storms stronger. Several nights I watched the ocean as it rose, level with or on top of the land. Villages once filled with life were now baren. Thanks to these hungry tides, I began to fear the sea. 

I told my advisor: “There is this thing called global warming. I’ve heard a lot about it, but many people don’t believe it is real. I worry that if it is real, and nothing is done to stop it, Kiribati may be one of the first countries to vanish. I think it needs attention from a humanities perspective. Kiribati’s future may be at risk.”
Six years after that conversation, with help from my university and a New Zealand Fulbright grant, I finished my degree. My research focused on climate change, human health, climatically induced and transnational migration.


Eighteen years after first stepping onto Kiribati soil, my commitment to the nation remains. MS may temporarily slow me down—it sometimes does—but it has never stopped me. 

In a way, I see MS as a gift. If not for the diagnosis, I would not be where I am today. MS has given my life purpose, meaning and opportunity. Living with MS, I continue fighting for those most impacted by climate change. I hope I will never stop.

From one MS Warrior to another, never give up on your dreams, never give up the fight.

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Michael Roman, Dr.

Dr. Michael Tomas Roman, former Peace Corps Volunteer, Fulbright Fellow, author of the upcoming book "When There was No Money," and co-founder of the social media platform Humans of Kiribati has spoken about the human faces of climate change for the past 16 years. Upon completing his Ph.D. in 2014, he has partnered with governments, international media, non-profit organizations and citizens from around the world to raise global consciousness of our planet’s climate crisis from the frontlines of climate change.

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  • Ricki Becker   Jul 16, 2018 1:35 PM
    If you had to be diagnosed, better now than when I was; 1987. There were NO disease modifying drugs then. Best of luck with your climate change studies a and the MS!!
    Ricki Becker
  • Thomas Moore   Aug 16, 2018 11:31 AM
    For Dr. Roman: The climate has been changing for about 4.5 billion years, whether man was on earth or not. It's been hotter than it is now and it's been colder than it is now so climate change goes on and there isn't anything man can do about it. If you want to do something about air pollution then I suggest you start with China and India.
  • Wendy Huckaby   Aug 16, 2018 4:14 PM
    As RPCV from the Marshall Islands I often think of their problems with rising sea levels. I am so glad your MS hasn’t prevented you from your research. I would love to back to the Pacific but MS makes traveling harder. Keep up the good work.
  • Jason Hallmark   Aug 20, 2018 1:56 PM
    Hi Michael, I was diagnosed in May and hearing your story is very inspirational and personal to me. I live in Pittsburgh and very shortly after being diagnosed I applied for and was selected to go on an international expedition to the Arctic join team leader and explorer Robert Swan. I will take part in the Leadership on the Edge Program which focuses on leadership development, up to date climate change research, and sustainability education. I graduated with a degree in Sustainable Management and my diagnosis was very eye opening so I realized I needed to do more to try to protect our beautiful planet. Thank you for helping me believe that I can turn this obstacle into a life changing opportunity.