Being a Person of Color in Science and Medicine

by Ujunwa Cynthia Okoye-Okafor

An editorial published in Science in 2011 highlights the fact that only 9% of the nation’s science and engineering labor force are held by underrepresented groups including African Americans Hispanics and Native Americans. It also mentioned the importance of social support and mentoring for students from underrepresented groups. Another article in The New York Times published last year, discusses a report in Science (Ginther DK., et. al., Science 2011) which showed that Black Ph.D. investigator applicants were significantly less likely to receive National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.) research funding. The NYT article mentions inadequate mentoring and professional networks, discrimination due to unconscious bias, and fewer first author and co-author publications, as some of the obstacles to having more Black Ph.D. investigators with NIH awards. Finally the article discusses initiatives by the N.I.H. that are geared towards increasing the number of individuals from underrepresented groups in the biological sciences including providing summer research opportunities for undergraduates and providing monetary incentives to professors who will serve as mentors or train new mentors.

While I have tried to provide commentary from a diverse group of students, this posting in no way represents the majority of the population. It is simply a glimpse into some of the unspoken issues that many people of color in science and/or medicine encounter. It also aims to show how, against various odds, they are accomplishing their personal and professional goals.

Persons of color in different fields of science and medicine were asked two questions: (1) How would you describe your experience so far as a person of color in science and/or medicine? and (2) Were/are there deterrents to your career choice?  [The names of participants have been abbreviated to protect their privacy].

A.O., Chemical Engineering student: – Sometimes if I’m being honest, I feel like there’s added pressure from society to succeed due to the fact that we are ‘of color’ and there isn’t many of us in this field. However that pressure can be turned into a really good motivation. You learn to accept it as a norm and focus on the positive. At the earlier point of my career, aside from my family and friends, I felt like there was a lack of people rooting for my success. I had to navigate the process to figure out what I had to do to get to the next point…. In class I often felt like my answers got downgraded even when they were correct. I didn’t get the same amount of ‘respect’ as my non-colored classmates… it was discouraging. I have to accept that not everyone will respect me and I have turned this into a driving force for my success. Although I have no resentment, I could never forget those experiences…I am strengthened by them.

A.M., Radiology Resident: – As a person of color my pursuit of medicine has had its challenges. I faced many of these challenges myself on my own because there was no one in my family in this field or who could provide any guidance. I felt/feel like a rarity amongst others. It is a bit harder to relate with colleagues on a cultural level, which again makes me feel partially alone in my endeavors. Now that I am a doctor, my work colleagues are primarily seen only at work and it is harder to make a personal connection outside of work. I think this is a bit of a disadvantage because there is so much to be gained from networking and knowing others [from different cultural backgrounds] on a more personal level. Constantly being faced with racism, whether subtle or gross was a major deterrent. However, I realized that it will remain whether or not I chose to continue along this track, hence I kept chugging along. Even as a doctor on the medicine floors, patients would often confuse me for a tech or a nurse or something other than a doctor. After a while you learn to laugh it off, correct the ignorance and proceed with your day.

W.F., Pre-Doctoral student: – I have not had any negative experiences being a person of color in science. In college I was part of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program that was geared toward minorities and I always felt like I had a large supportive community to lean on. Coming to graduate school was a bit of a shock because there weren’t as many people of color represented. However, I have never felt like the absence of other people of color has hindered me in any way. If anything, I think that being a woman in science is more of a deterrent, especially if you plan to take the academic route and become a professor.

S.G., Laboratory Technician & Aspiring Clinician: – Through the lens of my biracial/multi-ethnic heritage, my experiences in the sciences have been relatively consistent… Whether as an undergraduate at an Ivy League university or as a professional working towards being a clinician, there have not been very many opportunities to be mentored by those who are immediately relatable to me. While teachers and role models may certainly present themselves willingly in various forms, there is something to be said for being taught by someone who immediately understands the nuances of one’s mundane experiences. In light of my own history, any opportunity to mentor and/or introduce the sciences to others, especially elementary school aged children and undergraduates of color, is most welcomed by me.

Those belonging to the laboratory subculture acknowledge that one will work long hours for inadequate compensation out of honor and love for the profession of advancing scientific and medical knowledge. I understand my humble role in the machine and am glad for the position. I believe that there may be many difficulties that I uniquely face because I do not come from a ‘legacy or network’ of researchers or physicians, but in my eyes, I cannot allow any institutional deterrents to stand against my current position as a technician and certainly not against my future career goals to become a primary care provider.

E.A., Osteopathic Medical Student: – It is difficult to find mentors, especially female women of color… earlier in my career I had to search Google for Osteopathic physicians and that was how I stumbled upon one of my biggest mentors… But the process of finding her hadn’t been smooth. In a way, people do relate better with other people within their own race. It’s only natural. Imagine coming from a neighborhood where no one has made it through college, not to talk about being a doctor. It’s very discouraging. That is why it is important for those of us who have ‘made it’ to strive and push harder and serve as motivations and inspirations for those that are to come after us. We can encourage and show other students of color that they can achieve any height. We can pave the way for others just as the way has been paved for us.

Earlier in my career I did meet a few people who tried to pose as stumbling blocks. My experience was extra tough because I moved here from Africa after I had completed high school. Being the first in my family attempting to navigate the process of applying to college, and being in new territory, we were not sure what the best approach would be, but eventually I went through a community college before applying to the university. During my first year in a 4 year institution, I met a professor who didn’t know me well enough, but prejudged me because I had come from a community college. He felt like I couldn’t manage the workload and asked me if I was sure I wanted to follow the pre-med track. That encounter was disheartening and I almost gave up my plan to become a doctor. I’ve learned that following a non-traditional track should not be a deterrent. With God and the support of my family I worked hard and I am thankful to be at the point where I am today.

L.P., Pre-Doctoral Student: – I feel certain that most people have prejudices about how we look, the way we speak and/or where we come from. But I am not exactly sure how those prejudices have affected my career. For me, a stumbling block in my career has been that I do not have access to most fellowships and awards because I am a foreigner.

At the personal level, I have found that I tend to be disrespected by persons that have higher statuses than me or peers that believe that they are more intelligent. Nonetheless, I believe that such experiences can happen to anyone independently of their race or origin. I may have to try harder than other people to get to where I want to, but it is not impossible. I am convinced that the way I am, in terms of my overall character, has the most impact on my professional success.

Dr. Y.C., ED Attending: – As an underrepresented minority, I can share my experiences as a student and faculty member.  Vulnerability exists for students, but this fades when you become a faculty member. Since it’s difficult to advocate for yourself as a student, it’s essential to develop relationships with key mentors.  Some students may feel that finding the right mentor is difficult in academic institutions. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ mentor. I encourage students to find different mentors, from diverse backgrounds, who can help in different aspects of your life and career. People who can look at your different struggles and goals and offer you applicable solutions and/or suggestions are critical for your success.  Your mentors can help you navigate unconscious or conscious biases, if they occur. During medical school I had several different mentors that helped me acclimate to the environment and others that provided career guidance.

For anyone in medicine, finding the right mentors and networking opportunities is an ongoing challenge.

There are distinct issues for faculty of color that need to be addressed if you want to grow as a leader. The difficult issues are compounded if you are also a woman. Despite decades of women entering medicine, females make up only a small percentage of executive leadership positions. This is significantly smaller for women of color. There is a body of literature that describes the importance of gender differences in the work place as it pertains to leadership positions and negotiations. Being both a woman and a minority in any executive venue where you aspire to acquire a leadership position is challenging indeed In my case, I found many great mentors who have helped me throughout my entire academic career. They taught me how to advocate for students, housestaff, and patients, as well as myself. They gave me opportunities to grow as a leader under their tutelage. Regardless of where you are in your career, excelling as a leader can be achieved, but” it takes a village”. Resilience, determination and passion for the work you do are the key ingredients to success. 


U.O.: – As a young child growing up in Nigeria, I never had to feel inadequate or incapable because I had a different skin color. Moving to the U.S. in addition to the culture shock, I came to find that I was a ‘minority’. Webster’s College Dictionary defines the word minority several ways, including “the smaller in number of two groups constituting a whole” and “a part of a population differing from others (as in race) and often treated differently.” I have never really liked that word.

Throughout my journey towards becoming a physician-scientist, I have stumbled across a diverse mix of individuals, those who believed in my potential to succeed, those who were surprised I made it this far and those who were certain my goals were impossible to achieve. While often discouraging, no amount of negativity can serve as a deterrent to accomplishing my career objectives. To be fair, I do believe that regardless of one’s skin color, not everyone is lucky to be blessed with avid supporters and proponents of his/her goals and aspirations. Nonetheless I am thankful to have many great mentors, who have always nurtured my interests and encouraged me to always aim high.

Many of the experiences shared above closely mirror my own, but the unifying themes include the power of positivity, focus, perseverance, hard work, and the ability to make the most of every opportunity. To all aspiring scientists and/or physicians of color, identify a mentor (not necessarily of your skin color), who can understand your long-term professional and personal goals and is willing to assist you in accomplishing them.

“Out of the clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” — Albert Einstein

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