Mentoring as Our Mission: Enhancing Diversity in the Ophthalmology Pipeline

Four students from across the country spent their summers gaining valuable experience at Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins Medicine, through an initiative designed to establish a more inclusive workforce of highly talented ophthalmologists.

The Diversity Scholars Program at Wilmer serves to nourish leadership culture and equity in health care by preparing outstanding rising second-year medical students who are from underrepresented backgrounds and are considering specializing in ophthalmology.

In the program, which started in 2018, students are paired with a Wilmer faculty member who mentors them as they work on research projects. They are encouraged to submit an abstract of their research to a national meeting and to submit work for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The scholars can also gain clinical experience by attending weekly grand rounds, conferences and resident didactics. “It allows you to discover groundbreaking information and put a footprint in the ophthalmology field,” says Jessica Brinson, a student in this year’s cohort of diversity scholars.

This year marks the program’s largest class, with students participating under the tutelage of Wilmer faculty members Adrienne Scott, Fasika Woreta, Pradeep Ramulu and Fatemeh Rajaii. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s program took place primarily virtually.

Jessica Brinson­­ — Retina

Brinson, a rising second-year student at the Howard University College of Medicine, says she was interested in having a mentor who, like her, is a woman of color. Working with Scott, chief of Wilmer’s Bel Air office and one of the leaders of the Wilmer Diversity Council, Brinson focused her research on studying sociodemographic disparities and eye care usage among diabetic adults in the U.S. “Being able to have access to so many ophthalmologists in the field I want to be in is very inspiring,” Brinson says.

As a result of the program, Brinson was able to make her first poster presentation at a national research competition, the National Medical Association’s Rabb-Venable Excellence in Ophthalmology event, in which she earned second place. Brinson is currently completing the manuscript for her project. “It’s been so rewarding, and Dr. Scott is an amazing mentor,” she says about the program. “I’ve been telling all my classmates about how much I’ve loved it.”

Johsias Maru — Cornea

For Johsias Maru, a rising second-year medical student at the University of California San Francisco, the Diversity Scholars Program has allowed him to learn more about ophthalmology in a way that aligns with his interests. Paired with Woreta, residency program director and director of the Eye Trauma Center at Wilmer, Maru researched bias in letters of recommendation, with a focus on medical students applying to ophthalmology residency programs.

Despite never meeting Woreta in person, Maru says his relationship with her is one he values. “Whether it’s through email, phone call or text, she’s there whenever I have questions and is super accessible,” he says. “She’s supportive and willing to reach out and extend a hand to make connections for me and my work.”

Maru says the program has helped him grow as a researcher, in that he feels more confident in knowing what questions to ask and who to ask for help. “I don’t think I ever really had the experience to look through literature, come up with a research question and execute from start to finish,” he says. “But the program has allowed me to do that.”

Victor Cox — Glaucoma

Victor Cox, a rising second-year medical student at Georgetown University School of Medicine, researched the interplay between social determinants of health of patients who have visual field loss due to glaucoma. Paired with Ramulu, chief of Wilmer’s glaucoma division, Cox says he wanted to pursue the program because he saw the opportunity to work with Wilmer experts. As the calendar turned to fall, Cox has had the chance to shadow Ramulu.

Cox says the program has helped him become more comfortable with the idea of becoming an ophthalmologist. “The fact that this program exists, and the fact that mentors like Dr. Ramulu and his team exist and are willing to share their knowledge and wisdom with me, and allow me to work with them toward a common goal, is amazing,” he says.

Keale Cade — Oculoplastics

Keale Cade’s research was based in oculoplastics and focuses on analyzing incidence, patient demographics and emergency department costs of eyelid lacerations using the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample database.

Working with Rajaii, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Wilmer, the rising second-year student at Howard University College of Medicine says she enjoyed watching the project come together. “[Rajaii] is supportive in guiding me through the project while allowing me to work and think independently,” she says. “This program is important to have because it gives students an opportunity to take charge of a research project while having access to a mentor in ophthalmology.”

Looking onward

Faculty involved with the Diversity Scholars Program say they are glad to see it grow within Wilmer, as it started with one student in one division and is now part of its cornea, glaucoma, oculoplastics and retina divisions.

There is hope that the program can expand to other divisions within Wilmer and that similar initiatives can be established at medical schools across the country in years to come. “I think it has grown exactly the way we’ve envisioned and hoped,” says Albert Jun, chief of Wilmer’s Division of Cornea, Cataract and External Eye Diseases. “It showed there was a need for this type of a program, and there’s still a need.”

Jun says an experience like the Diversity Scholars Program can help participants explore and confirm their interest in ophthalmology, adding that as the medical school curricula have gradually reduced exposure to the specialty over time, many students would not have opportunities to explore ophthalmology in such depth at their home institutions. “We’re accepting strong students, but we hope that this program and experience will also enhance their credentials,” he says. “While Wilmer is committed to enhancing the diversity of the ophthalmology workforce with our department, we hope that this program is going to be putting out people into the entire ecosystem of ophthalmology residencies around the country, as well.”

But for something like the Diversity Scholars Program to be successful, Jun says it requires commitment from the mentors to help foster a relationship with their mentees. “What appealed to me is having really personal involvement,” he says. “I think that’s where the rubber hits the road, when you’re involved with an individual.”