A New Century Scholar’s Journey to Academic Medicine

mentor word cloudBy: April Khadijah Inniss, MD, MSc

A.K. Inniss is a health services research fellow in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit, and an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I never imagined I would become an academic pediatrician. A research career had felt out of reach for me—I didn’t have a Ph.D., I hadn’t worked in any labs or on major research projects as a college or medical student. Even I am pleasantly surprised that I’m completing my third year of clinical research fellowship and looking for a position that will allow me to use both my research skills and clinical expertise as a pediatrician.

I credit the New Century Scholars (NCScholars) program with shoring up my confidence in this area. NCScholars, as described in a recent article by Pachter and Kodjo highlighting the program’s 10-year history and its impact on its 63 alumni, is a mentorship program designed to support pediatric residents from underrepresented minority groups who are pursuing academic medicine. And I am one of those alumni.

When I was a resident, a trusted mentor who had participated in the program some years prior recommended I apply after learning about my interest in social determinants of health as drivers of health inequity. I did and, thankfully, was accepted. I was thrilled when I learned that I was being paired with junior and senior mentors who were not only top-notch thinkers in my areas of interest, but who were willing to shepherd me through the daunting process of becoming an academic pediatrician.

I remember waiting to meet my senior mentor for the first time, after retreating to one of the coffee areas scattered along the bustling corridors of the Colorado Convention Center at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting. A highly accomplished practitioner and researcher, I’d already known of her amazing track record for high-impact research on the health consequences of child poverty and primary care models for vulnerable populations. She walked up, smiling and waving, warm and unassuming. She settled in on the plush couch across from mine, and we started sharing experiences from our alma maters. I explained that one of the reasons I hesitated to pursue an academic career was it would take me away from the solutions implementation work I was so passionate about. Then she taught me something that I never forgot, and it ignited an appreciation for the research process that I hadn’t really grasped before that time—research isn’t just about defining problems, it’s also important for implementing and maintaining sound and evidence-based solutions to those problems.

Beyond that initial meeting, my mentors maintained contact with me as my research focus evolved; my initial focus was on using government policy to address health inequities through their social determinants. Now I study how best to harness the power of media and innovative social marketing to promote health and wellness among vulnerable populations. When my mentors learned of the latest twist or tweak in my research agenda, they’d put me in touch with other experts to shape and hone any new ideas, grounding me in a community that I can reach out to and receive direction and support from, no matter where I am in my career.

The NCScholars program has other features that also continue to influence my career trajectory to this day. Each year, the program showcases talks and roundtable discussions led by program leaders, program alumni, and other luminaries in academic pediatrics, including top-ranking government officials and senior research faculty from institutions across the United States. These experiences were my first exposure to many nontraditional pediatric academic opportunities—the same types of opportunities I’m seeking out today.

Last, but not least, meeting and being inspired by my fellow NCScholars was another highlight of the program. Some of these encounters have developed into fruitful peer mentorship relationships. Furthermore, being able to give back to the program as a junior mentor has been a wonderful opportunity to hopefully enrich another NCScholar’s career path. My mentee and I have discussed both the practical and the aspirational aspects of an academic medical career, and I’m inspired by what the future holds for our field. While I started out this journey with a degree of uncertainty about my own future as an academic clinician, I know now for sure that the NCScholars community is helping to shape a generation of clinical thinkers more diverse than any one prior—and I’m a part of it. Imagine that!

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