I recently had the pleasure of having an intimate conversation with Dr. Louis Wade Sullivan, Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George H. W. Bush and founding Dean of Morehouse School of Medicine.
Dr. Sullivan shared some of his thoughts on the scarcity of minorities in medicine and science, which has arguably reached endemic proportions.
Black men, for example, seem to remain the most underrepresented in medicine, given their overall representation in the American population. In fact, more Black men entered medical school in the year 1978 than in 2014.
Earning a Ph.D. in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) does not fare much better with less than 4 percent being awarded to African American men and less than 5 percent to African Americans in total.
Dr. Sullivan pointed out that there is a responsibility that we have as a larger society to remove the barriers, but there also is a personal responsibility that we have as individuals and family members to see that the environment our young people grow up in is supporting them and reaffirming them. This is what Islamic community life should be.
Long before I decided to apply for a Ph.D. in biomedical science, I was being nurtured and supported inside the womb of my Islamic community.
At the age of 15, my parents enrolled me in W. D. Mohammed High School in Atlanta, Ga., 450 miles away from home. It was this environment that helped to forge inside me a responsibility to my community and a drive for making a larger contribution to society.
The move did not come without its own unique challenges. I boarded with four separate families while attending the school, leaving my aunt and uncle after an electrical fire and departing from another family after being robbed at gunpoint on my way home one night.
My parents offered for me to return home, but I knew my soul needed the interconnectedness of community.
I learned later that those misfortunes were a test of my resiliency, and I could always rely on my community to remind me of the importance of my mission and my ability to succeed.
In 2003, I graduated valedictorian and accepted a full scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. I majored in Biology with hopes of entering medical school.
By my junior year, I had received significant training in scientific research through various mentors and internships. In one experience, I joined researchers at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia seeking ways to reduce the prevalence of tuberculosis in dairy cattle on a governmental farm.
This opportunity gave me confidence in my ability to affect the lives of others through science and provided a glimpse into how I could use science to inform policy.
Not only did we advance the knowledge in our scientific field, we provided evidence to shape local governmental policy. I discovered a clear relationship between scientific research and the lives of people whom I sought to strengthen.
I went on to earn my Ph.D. in biomedical research at New York University School of Medicine and began teaching at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In 2014, I accepted a position as Director of Diversity and Student Services at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, where I seek to recruit and train the next generation of scientists.
There is a vital need to train more physicians and scientists from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds to address the needs of minority populations.
Those needs may come in the form of health disparities, minority patient interaction, or a better understanding of basic biological processes.
African American Muslim communities must realize their potential for producing more doctors (including Ph.D.’s) and place a greater value on higher education.
Higher education doesn’t always mean enrolling in the conventional educational route, but it should lead the student to seek the best training wherever he or she may find it.
The African American experience is rich with students of knowledge who mastered their field in order to bring great benefit to their people, community, and society. Muslims must uphold this tradition for the viability and overall health of our communities.
I want to see more nutritionists studying African American Muslim diets. I want to hear about more epidemiologists who are studying the patterns and ramifications of disease conditions in the African American community.
Above all, I would like to see the African American Muslim community establish a reputation for producing scholars who are supported and reaffirmed by their own community.
In this vein, I am making myself available as a mentor for any who is interested in achieving a Ph.D. in STEM. For those who are interested in becoming a research scientist or physician, you should be spending your summers in a laboratory or clinical environment, respectively.
Many colleges and universities host free and paid summer internships for college students to gain valuable research experience and/or clinical exposure. (Some host opportunities for high school students as well.)
For example, the ACCESS Summer Research Program of Weill Cornell Graduate School, for which I am the director, hosts 10 or more students for 10 weeks. Each student receives free housing, meal vouchers, a stipend of $3,500 for the summer, and up to $500 to cover travel expenses to New York City.
The deadline for most programs is January through early March.
For those who are interested in other fields, I encourage you to join the 100 Black Doctors Initiative. This initiative is designed to connect at least 100 Black doctors (Ph.D., M.D. or D.O.) from the Muslim community in any field or discipline to mentor the next cohort of 100 black doctors.