New program brings Meharry medical students into the ‘Yale family’

“You are now part of the Yale family,” said Rochelle Smith, associate dean of diversity and inclusion and associate chief diversity officer at Yale School of Medicine (YSM), addressing six medical students from Meharry Medical College. It was a sentiment that would be echoed often during the Zoom orientation and welcome for the inaugural Meharry-Yale Summer Research Program. The students had been selected from Meharry, an historically Black medical school in Nashville, in a program designed by Yale School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to provide them with research experience and career advancing networking opportunities. The students will work alongside Yale faculty members and residents, begin building networks, and deepen their understanding of careers paths in psychiatry, neurosurgery, and neuroscience, which is the inaugural program’s focus. Organizers hope the students will also consider applying for residencies at Yale after they graduate Meharry. Although the summer program is being held virtually, there was already a palpable sense of engagement and enthusiasm.

In her welcome, Nancy J. Brown, MD, Jean and David W. Wallace Dean of YSM and C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine, said: “I hope this will truly be a formative experience that leads you to think like a physician-scientist. You’ve chosen to embark on a career that will bring a lifetime of inquiry and discovery.”

The Meharry students come from Florida, Tennessee, Ohio, and California. All have completed their first year of medical school and will be working on a project designed in tandem with a Yale faculty research mentor. Participant Brittany Scott, who is paired with Nii Addy, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and of cellular and molecular physiology, says she’s interested in psychiatry, anesthesiology, and bariatrics, and applied because “the field of psychiatry was not something I had much exposure to. This was an opportunity to gain more insight.” Participant Catherine Cazimir, who is paired with Albert Powers, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, said that while she is undecided, “psychiatry is one of the things I’m interested in. Even if I don’t go into psychiatry, the experience here is invaluable.” Ali Ibrahim, who is paired with Eyiyemisi Damisah, MD, assistant professor of neurosurgery, said “I want to further my interest in neuroscience and get more exposure.”

Sarah Fineberg, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, who is working with Meharry student Demarcus Ingram and studies social dysfunction in people with Borderline personality disorder and history of trauma, said they’d already discussed ideas for a research project and “Demarcus had great ideas. I’m looking forward to brainstorming more with him in the coming weeks.”

Developing independent research skills is a key focus of the program — and the Meharry students bring invaluable insight to these research projects, said Darin A. Latimore, MD, deputy dean and chief diversity officer and associate professor of internal medicine (general medicine). “As Yale strives for excellence in science and education, each of you with your lived experience will help us reach that goal over this summer,” he said.

As they participate in cutting-edge research and learn to think like scientists, the students will also work on professional development, community building, and preparation for residencies, learning how to create a CV, write a personal statement, develop resilience, and give an interview, among other skills.

Melanie Brady, PhD, who graduated this past weekend with a degree in neuroscience and works in the DEI office as a fellow, is coordinating the research components of the program. “I’ll make sure you are transitioning well, anything from getting along with your PIs to managing the workload,” Brady said.

Linda Jackson, director of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, Community Engagement and Equity (DICE), assured the students that she would make them feel comfortable and provide a home for them on campus — even if a virtual one for now. “My family roots are from Georgia,” she told the students. “It’s important that no matter where you come from, or your background, that you come to Yale and feel like you have a family, a safe haven.”

A current psychiatry resident who is supporting the program, Michael McClurkin, MD, MPP, shared with the students how he benefited from similar programs run by Jackson: the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program and BioSTEP. Before he came to Yale 10 years ago, said McClurkin, “I didn’t know where Yale was.” But those programs, he said, led him to a role at the National Institutes of Health, a joint degree program in public health and medicine at Harvard, and now a residency at Yale. He said there were a number of reasons he was drawn back to Yale. “The New Haven community for me is really special,” he said, “and the research is top-notch, especially in psychiatry and neuroscience.” He also spoke, as a Black doctor, of the importance of a diverse residency. “You need places where you feel validated and protected,” McClurkin said. “I’ve been buttressed by faculty in my department and by my residency, which is very diverse.” About one-third of psychiatry residents across all four years at YSM come from groups underrepresented in medicine.

McClurkin, along with many of the other program coordinators and mentors, spoke of the importance of students connecting with leaders in their chosen fields, and leveraging those networks to further their career goals.

“I hope it’s very clear that you have joined a family and we are here to support you,” said Latimore. “Hard work is needed, but mentors and sponsors who have your back are equally if not more important. Seek out one of us to be there for you as your career advances.”

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