When Overcoming Life’s Barriers Leads to a Career in Medicine

“My name is Sarah. My name in Arabic is bringer of joy. My name is university student, oldest sibling, New York-born and makeup addict. But in the airport, my name is Ma’am, please step aside and random pat-down. On the street, my name is terrorist.”

College junior Sarah Tayel shared her story with a packed audience during the annual Johns Hopkins Career, Academic and Research Experiences for Students (CARES) Summer Symposium on July 27. She described her excitement of fi­nally being able to wear a hijab at age 12, just like her mother and older friends. But she quickly learned that the world, and even some classmates and teachers, didn’t share her joy. Nonetheless, Tayel refuses to let hateful remarks dictate her life as she aspires to become a couple, marriage and family therapist—a career path that included an internship through the CARES Network.

Each summer, nearly 300 underrepre­sented high school and college students participate in one of 16 paid internship opportunities at Johns Hopkins labo­ratories, clinics and medical offices that make up the CARES network, which aims to improve students’ odds to pursue a career in science, public health or med­icine. Programs range from performing basic biomedical research through the Biophysics Research for Baltimore Teens program, to Tayel’s experience learn­ing about preventing health disparities through the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Maternal Child Health-Leadership Edu­cation, Advocacy and Research Network. It all culminates with a symposium for students to present their research findings.

At the event, Dunbar High School senior Davonta McNair enthusiasti­cally explained how he worked under Michael Smith, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, to analyze brainwaves during sleep with a watch-like device. Suffering from erratic sleep patterns himself, McNair was interested to learn how sleep influences conditions such as high blood pressure, depression and anxiety.

Keynote speaker Felicia Hill-Briggs, senior director of population health research and development at Johns Hopkins HealthCare, spoke about her own journey to encourage students to keep their dreams in sight. She was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at age 9 and doctors told her family that she probably wouldn’t live past the age of 40. Not only did she prove them wrong, but Hill-Briggs became the first non-physician, African-American professor in medicine, despite being rejected by her top choices for graduate school, internship and postdoctoral fellowship program.

“The road is not a straight one. It’s more like having different phases across the course of your educational career, with various goals and ups and downs in each one,” she said.

Other student speakers shared moving stories of how their life experiences led them to pursue a career in medicine.

Baylor University college student Mi­cheal Munson, who participated in the pulmonary and critical care medicine internship, reflected on that it’s been three years since his father could pick up a fork following paralysis from a terrible accident. Munson dreams of becoming a physician-scientist and one day telling other families that their father is on the way to recovery, thanks to cutting-edge research.

Francis Mejia, a junior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, grew up facing communication barriers after emigrat­ing to the U.S. from Honduras at age 5. While shadowing medical interpreters at The Johns Hopkins Hospital through her Centro SOL internship, she recog­nized the relief on patients’ faces when they realized an interpreter was present. She is inspired to pursue a career in nursing.

Vice Dean for Education Roy Ziegel­stein encouraged students to push aside barriers that may stand in the way of their dreams. Whether the wind blows with you or against you, he advised, “Don’t let that wind discourage you from performing your best. Thank you for making Johns Hopkins a better place this summer, and the world a better place forever.”

Visit the CARES website to learn more and watch a recording of the keynote and student speakers at the 2017 symposium.