Bridging Connections For Years To Come

I attended the PLEN Women in STEM Policy seminar due to the influence of my mentor Alden Landry, MD, MPH. He displayed the importance and value a Master’s in Public Health has on his career and encouraged me to research the necessary degree, or degrees, I would need to make my future job attainable. Due to the current health inequalities in our world today, I plan to also pursue an MPH to complement my MD so I am able to not only treat patients but make active strides towards improving health care as a whole.

The Women in STEM Policy seminar was comprised of phenomenal female panelists, site visits, and a foundation for creating a web of networks that I plan on utilizing later in life. Although all of the panelists were thoughtful and inspiring, one in particular stood out to me the most. Her name is Dr. Nakela Cook, MD, MPH, F.A.C.C. Not only does she possess two degrees that I hope to later on pursue in life, but she also attended my top medical school choice: Harvard Medical School. Her story, as all stories, was not a straight path, but she found mentors along the way that helped transition her into the career she has today. Dr. Cook is currently the chief of staff for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the NIH. The fact that she is also a black woman diversifies not only the ideal image of a doctor but also the staff at the NIH.

When I first walked inside of the NIH, I was greeted by black security clerks. At each station I saw that there was either a black male or female seated there and I became anxious. Although it is important to have a diverse staff at the NIH, I was frightened by the thought of minorities having only clerk or janitorial positions. I remember making a remark about this to one of my PLEN peers and found that they had that same worry. After seeing and talking with Dr. Cook, my anxious feelings were put at ease. I knew that there is at least one well esteemed black doctor, but I was not sure there were a lot more. Experiencing situations like this prompt me to push further in my desired career because one day I may be talking  to a little girl who looks like me and needs that little bit of hope be pushed forward, too. Going after a career that is both male- and caucasian-dominated is not easy, but I've learned that to feel more at ease, I must encourage myself and those that look like me to blossom in those “white spaces” because we deserve to have a place at the table as well.

McKenzie and another PLEN student on Capitol Hill

Currently, I am in a science program called the Biomedical Science Career Program which works to “provides students of every race, ethnic background, gender and financial status with encouragement, support and guidance needed for the successful pursuit of biomedical science and other science-related careers.” This program serves a substantial amount minorities in STEM and acts as blanket of support and guidance for future MD’s and PhD’s. I mention this program because the founder of the program is actually a mentor of Dr. Cook. The founder, Dr. Joan Reed, MD, MS, MPH, MBA, is a well known black female doctor who has acted as an inspiration to me for many years. I was elated that Dr.Cook knew Dr. Reed and comforted that, although Dr. Cook is brilliant, she too needed support on her journey to success.

Although Dr. Cook was the main panelist that stood out to me, there were other panelists who listed statistics and facts about their current position, and about women as a whole in the workforce, that I found daunting. There is a statistic that says that women will met 80% of the requirements for a job and still not apply while men will meet 20% of the requirements and apply anyway. I believe this statistics rings true to the fact of women being socialized to be too timid to push and break down barriers that keep them from the next opportunity. Although there are women that do not apply to this statistic,  I believe women have long been told to “stay in a woman's place” and “remain complacent.” The fact that women are not statistically just as daring as men is a fact that almost all of the panelists wanted to change. They encouraged us to go after careers in male-dominated sectors. They recommended us to lock arms with the people that we known and build connections that will help us reach our end goals. They taught us that if they can do it, then so can we.

To say that this PLEN seminar was inspirational is an understatement. I was not only amazed by the well established women that were panelists, but also the vibrant and eager peers that I met on this trip. One particular student named Fatumastar Adan helped the transition to the PLEN seminar course run effortlessly. She too is a zealous pre-med student but she is in her final year of college at St. Catherine University. Not only did we ethnically connect, but personality-wise, we were very compatible. Throughout the PLEN seminar, we worked together, coming up with questions to ask the panelists and encouraging each other to mention opposing opinions in discussions. Unexpectedly, this opportunity to understand more about STEM policy and the ways in which I can utilize a MPH provided an opportunity to foster everlasting friendships with peers and future medical colleagues.

I am incredibly thankful for PLEN for sponsoring my hotel and seminar fee, to my mom for assisting with transportation, and Mills College for having this course offered in the January term. After the seminar, I have a list of peers to contact for encouragement, panelists to email for advice, and ongoing support from PLEN since I am now considered a PLEN alumna. My next steps is to become a PLEN ambassador at Mills College and to promote more students to attend a PLEN seminar. I would love to help assist Mills in developing a strong affiliation to PLEN because this STEM policy seminar truly helped my career path and my overall comfortability with challenging the image of what a doctor “should look like.”


McKenzie Thompson attended the Women in STEM Policy seminar during her sophomore year at Mills College located in Oakland, California. She received a scholarship sponsored by STEM for Her to attend this seminar.

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