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Student Advocacy, Social Justice, and Career Decisions

Elise V. Mike, M.D./Ph.D.Social justice has been woven into the fabric of Albert Einstein College of Medicine since the institution opened its doors to everyone, regardless of gender, race, or creed, in 1955. I chose to pursue my M.D./Ph.D. training at Einstein because of its mission to improve health through scientific and clinical excellence and community engagement. Though I grew up in St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands, I was born in the Bronx, at Jacobi Medical Center. The borough has always held a special place in my heart because I spent many summers here as a child. As I plan to dedicate my career to the service of underserved communities, I could think of no better place to develop the necessary skill set.

I vividly recall first reading the list of medical school educational competencies: healer, scientist, advocate, educator, colleague, role model, and lifelong learner. Though I knew I had to master them all, “physician as advocate” resonated deep within me. My early years in the program were during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I, along with a few of my classmates, spearheaded participation in the 2014 national “white coat die-in.” This action was a display of solidarity of medical students across the country who proclaimed racism as a public-health issue. I found camaraderie with other minoritized students at Einstein, and we founded the Student Collective for Action on Diversity, affectionately known as “The Collective.” We yearned for an environment that was more supportive of minority students, and we voiced our concerns in a letter to the deans shortly after the die-in. Our letter sparked the first campus-wide town hall on diversity and led to a diversity retreat where students, faculty, and deans tackled several issues, including curriculum, faculty accountability, admissions practices, and student life. It laid the groundwork for the Einstein Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee, formed in 2016 to craft a diversity plan to present to the Board of Trustees.

A critical part of our strategic plan was the creation of a Diversity Council to oversee diversity and inclusion initiatives longitudinally, and I have proudly served on this council since its inception. The partnership between the Collective and the administration has also brought about several changes on campus, including, but not limited to, the designation of gender-neutral bathrooms, the creation of a Muslim prayer room, the creation of the position of chief diversity officer, and the inclusion of additional marginalized identities under the umbrella of the office of diversity enhancement.

As a Black female M.D./Ph.D. candidate, I have always been committed to advocating for current and future medical students who are underrepresented in medicine. This has led to my holding several leadership roles within the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) at the local, regional, and national levels. My work with the SNMA was immensely meaningful, and I was filled with pride when new Einstein first-year medical students in the class of 2025 fondly remembered my leadership from their premedical student days. Though I found this work fulfilling, I yearned for a space within which both minority and majority students could explore the impact institutionalized racism has had on people of color and learn together about how best to advocate for our patients. Therefore, I founded the Einstein chapter of White Coats for Black Lives (WC4BL) in 2016. The chapter participates in national demonstrations, collaborates with other student organizations, and holds teach-in sessions to illuminate racism as a public-health issue. Most recently, I spearheaded the writing of a 20-page letter to the administration as part of the national WC4BL Actions Speak Louder campaign. This letter, signed by over 300 members of the Einstein community, set forth specific steps needed to make Einstein an antiracist institution. The WC4BL leadership continues to meet monthly with Einstein’s chief diversity officer, Dr. Nerys Benfield, to work toward meeting the demands outlined therein. We also have a permanent WC4BL representative position on the Diversity Council to ensure that we continue to have a seat at the table. I am confident that I am leaving Einstein a better place than I found it, and I am honored to have mentored younger student activists who will carry the torch after I graduate.

My activism both within and beyond Einstein has been deeply impactful, and my experiences here have helped redefine my vision of a successful career. I focused my thesis research on the pathophysiology of neuropsychiatric lupus, a disease that predominantly affects women of color. My graduate training taught me resilience, the importance of teamwork, and creative problem-solving. After defending my thesis, I remained undecided on a medical specialty long after others had solidified their paths. I wasn’t sure how my passions for clinical care, research, and advocacy would fit together. While exploring different specialties upon returning to the wards, I learned how to look deeper than the “noncompliant” label that some patients undeservedly carry. I learned from my patients about the myriad of reasons they struggle to adhere to treatment plans, including socioeconomic challenges, lack of health literacy, language barriers, and a lack of cultural humility in clinical encounters. I also had the pleasure of learning from physicians whose brilliance, patience, compassion, and cultural humility are awe-inspiring, and I’ve acquired skills that will serve me for the rest of my career. I eventually found my calling within ophthalmology. The field not only offers the opportunity to affect patients’ lives clinically and surgically but also allows me to apply my expertise in neuroinflammation to degenerative eye diseases. Unfortunately, it is also rife with disparities in the workforce and among the patients, and there is much work to be done to achieve vision-health equity. I have already begun researching vision-health disparities and antiracism in ophthalmology initiatives. I am excited to begin my residency at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, where I will continue this work and no doubt receive excellent clinical training.

I’ve spent almost a decade here at Einstein, and the greatest lesson I have learned is to be true to myself and my passions. I am fiercely committed to antiracism and achieving health equity, and I was able to dedicate myself to this on an interpersonal level with my approach to clinical training, longitudinally with my translational research, and on a large scale through my activism. Looking at the educational competencies now, I am confident that I will always be a healer, a scientist, an advocate, an educator, a colleague, a role model, and a lifelong learner. I have achieved these competencies in a way that aligns with my fundamental reasons for pursuing medicine, and I’ve learned how to balance and synergize all my interests. When I graduated from Emory University with my bachelor’s degree and I told my parents I was going to take at least a year off before applying to medical school, my father gave me a framed copy of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem.” The poem reads:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I often pondered the answers to these questions as I encountered obstacles in my path at Einstein. As I reflect on what I have accomplished and excitedly look forward to the next phase of my career, I can confidently say that my dream exploded into something beautiful.

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Elise V. Mike

Elise V. Mike

Elise will graduate from the Medical Scientist Training Program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine on May 27, 2021. In July, she will begin her ophthalmology residency training at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute.

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