• Meet Justin Evans, Program Manager I

    Newsletter Image August Justin EvansThe Office for Diversity and Inclusion has four cornerstone goals.

    • Build an institution free from discrimination of any kind;
    • Create excellence by cultivating diversity;
    • Promote the career development of our diverse workforce;
    • Enhance the recruitment and retention of students, trainees, and staff from those underrepresented in medicine.

    To help bring the fourth goal to fruition, last year ODI welcomed Justin Evans, Program Manager I, to serve as a dedicated resource and bridge between undergraduate medical education (UME) and graduate medical education (GME). For Justin, this means that while his position technically sits with the GME team, he will physically be located in the UME-Student Affairs office.

  • Marcela Frazier: Hispanic Heritage in Medicine

    Marcela Frazier photoLocated in the middle of the Andes is Medellín, Colombia. This is where, a number of years ago, Marcela Frazier’s mother raised both her and her brother. Brought up with little resources, Marcela Frazier, OD, MSPH, watched her single-mom work hard to provide for her family’s needs and create a happy and loving home.

  • Ninecia Scott: Building a Community of Black in Microbiology

    Black in Micro LogoThe importance of mentoring has been a well-known fact for many years. According to an article from Forbes, “studies show that good mentoring can lead to greater career success, including promotions, raises, and increased opportunities.” In recent years, people have identified the need for these mentors and role models to represent a more diverse population—encouraging those typically underrepresented to pursue that interest. In a similar manner, once underrepresented students become researchers, doctors, professors, etc. a support system is crucial to growth.

  • Lamario Williams: Leading with Love

    Lamario Williams HeadshotAccording to the online resource, an estimated 1.7 million private scholarships and fellowships are awarded each year. For students receiving these funds, it can often be a game-changer in their academic careers. In the case of UAB MSTP student Lamario Williams (GS-2), scholarships have allowed him to pursue his passion for cardiovascular surgery and research. 

  • Traveling on the Cusp of a Global Pandemic

    Kalah ODuring the early stages of COVID-19 in the U.S. (January-March), the news was changing on an hourly basis—new guidelines, procedures, and ways of living needed to be implemented to keep the public safe. However, with its global footprint, new and fast-changing policies can be even harder to keep up with—especially for travelers, people with family in other countries, or a combination of the two. 

  • Profile: Samantha Hill, M.D., MPH

    Dr Samantha Hill in white coatIt’s well known that the experiences we encounter at a young age shape who we become as adults. For Dr. Samantha Hill, growing up in the Atlanta area opened her eyes to the disparities and stigmas in reproductive and HIV health that needed to be addressed. However, to attend to these issues, Hill knew she needed to leave the South.

    Following her graduation from undergraduate studies at Duke University, Dr. Hill took a position at the National Institutes of Health to get exposure to research and help her decide if she wanted to pursue a dual M.D./PhD degree. After deciding to pursue an M.D. degree at Morehouse School of Medicine, Hill returned to the city where her passion took hold—bringing her observations and training with her. 

  • Profile: Danielle Powell, M.D.

    Danielle PowellAs the daughter of an elementary school teacher and plumber, Dr. Danielle Powell’s parents instilled in her three things that would become an integral part of who she is: 
    - The importance of education
    - To have a career that she could be passionate about
    - To value everyone she meets

    As a kid, Dr. Powell remembers her mom buying her toy stethoscopes and microscopes. Then, when a dermatologist came to speak to her 8th-grade class, Powell knew for sure she wanted to pursue medicine. While she no longer wants to create a skincare line, the intentions of Dr. Powell’s career path still resonate with one of her personal mission statements—to “make a difference in people’s lives through expert advice, personal empowerment, and compassion.”

  • Profile: Brian Sims, M.D., Ph.D.

    The life and career of Brian Sims, M.D., Ph.D., have both been characterized by exceptional determination and service. An associate professor of neonatology in the pediatrics department at UAB, Sims deals with the most vulnerable of patients: newborn babies. 

    He traces his love of service to his childhood. Sims grew up in the Birmingham area as the second of six children, the son of Reverend Walter Sims and Bennie Ruth Sims. The reverend served as a pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in West End for over 40 years. Sims remembers his childhood as “full of love and support.” His Brian Simsparents, he said, gave him easy examples of service to follow.

    His passion for caring for those smaller and more vulnerable than himself started young. When he was twelve, his mother began equipping Sims to care for his younger sisters, the youngest of which was only 8 months old. He learned how to cook for his sisters, to help them get ready in the morning, and listened for their cries at night. This training came in handy: that same year, his mother was hospitalized for several weeks and the responsibility for his younger siblings fell to Sims. 

    This was a formative experience. Sims loved taking care of his sisters, and also saw the importance of the medical care that was provided to his mother. He already had a strong love for education in general, and science in particular. He saw education as a fair playing ground: if you prepared, you would be ready; if you prepared, he said, “you could accomplish anything.”

  • Profile: Marisa Marques, M.D.

    Marisa B. Marques, M.D., head of the section of Transfusion Medicine in the UAB Department of Pathology was only 13 years old when she decided to become a doctor. “I don’t remember why,” Marques remembered, “I didn’t know any people in the medical profession.” But the notion took hold, and became the focus of her ambition.

    Marques grew up in Brazil, the oldest of four children, the only daughter of a teacher and an accountant. Her father encouraged her to be a lawyer, “Probably because I argued with him all the time,” Marques laughed. But law, she determined, wasn’t for her.

    A high academic performer, she never doubted that she would achieve her goal of being admitted to medical school – and in fact, on graduating highM Marques real school, she was admitted to the medical school in her city. In Brazil, students attend the university in their local area, and in Marques’ case, she was fortunate that her local medical school was one of the best in the country. 

    She had discovered her love for internal medicine when she met the man she would marry – another medical student, a year ahead of her. They didn’t know each other well when he told her, “When I finish medical school, I’m going to train in the United States.”

    Marques, already interested in the older student, declared, “When you go, I’m going with you.”

    As with her medical school ambition, Marques fulfilled her promise. They married soon after her graduation from medical school, and two years later they both started work in the United States at the National Institutes of Health. Her husband gained a fellowship at the NIH first, in thyroid research, and was instrumental in helping Marques find a place. 

    There was only one problem: Marques’ comprehension of English was still so low that she had failed the TOEFL, the English language examination required of foreign-born residents. 

  • Profile: Amber Clark, M.D.

    Amber Clark means to be an agent of change. As chief resident in physical medicine and rehabilitation at UAB, she’s not only committed to making a difference in the medical field, but also as an advocate marginalized groups, for those impacted by disabilities, and populations burdened by health disparities. 

    Screen Shot 2019 09 22 at 5.06.29 PMClark is the youngest of three girls, raised in Monroe, Louisiana, a town Clark describes as, “Oh! That’s that place I passed on my way to Texas.” Her parents, Kirk and Zelda Clark, were both raised in poverty, and they were determined to make a better life for their children. Zelda became the first African American pharmacist in the city, and her father, an entrepreneur, operates his own janitorial service. 

    They raised their daughters to be, in Clark’s words, “focused.” Surrounding their children with other families with the same values of hard work and academics, and moving the family to an area with a superior school system, the Clarks raised three successful daughters: Amber’s older sisters are a judge and an internal medicine physician. 

    Clark herself focused not only on crafting a stellar academic record, but also on her other love, dance. She credits her family’s love, values, and intense commitment to excellence with helping her overcome racial challenges that came early in her childhood. Although she didn’t understand what the “N” word meant when it was first leveled at her on the school bus, Clark could sense the animus behind it. 

  • Profile: Tika Benveniste, Ph.D.

    When you are raised by Holocaust survivors, you grow up with a unique sense of the scale of your problems. 

    “My parents lost all their family, and lost their faith,” Tika Benveniste, Ph.D., remembered. “So the usual childhood problems – you don’t like what’s being served for dinner, or your friend was mean to you – didn’t really resonate. I felt like I shouldn’t go to them for anything that wasn’t a serious crisis, so I grew up very independent.”

    Benveniste currently serves as UAB School of Medicine’s senior vice dean for Basic Sciences, and associate vice president for Medicine and Basic Sciences. She is the Charlene A. Jones Endowed Chair in Neuroimmunology, associate director for Basic Science Research, O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Co-Director, UABTika Benveniste Multiple Sclerosis Center. Benveniste boasts a storied career which includes a role as senior associate dean for Research Administration and Development, and Founding Chair of the Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology. Her professional accolades and accomplishments are wide-ranging and significant. 

    But at the beginning of her life journey, as the daughter of Greek immigrants growing up in Oakland, California, she had no aspirations to become a scientist – much less a leader in her field. 

    As part of a small community of Greek refugees whose resettlement in Northern California had been sponsored in the aftermath of World War Two, her social environment was cloistered. The old traditions were restrictive, but the trauma that her parents had survived in Europe made Benveniste feel as if complaints were selfish. In addition, her autistic older brother required a great deal of attention – and then, when she was only 11, her father suffered a massive heart attack and, afterward, was too disabled to work. Benveniste’s mother, who had trained as a dentist in Greece, had earned a degree from UC San Francisco in dental hygiene and was able to shoulder the financial obligations for the family, but this left the young Tika with many of the household burdens. 

  • Profile: Deborah Grimes, RN, JD

    “This isn’t about me,” said Deborah Grimes, RN, JD, Chief Diversity Officer of UAB’s Health System, discussing the impact her 30-year career at UAB has left on others and the institution as a whole. “Having the right core mission – helping other people – makes sure that everything falls into place.”

    Grimes stepped into the newly-created role of Health System Chief Diversity Officer in 2017: the most recent move in an astronomical career arc that spanned nearly 3 decades at UAB. With an eye toward continual growth, an expansive curiosity, and a dedication to patient care, Grimes has achieved excellence in numerous fields over the course of her career.

    Deborah GrimesGrowing up in Anniston, Alabama, Grimes had no notion of rising to the highest levels of health care administration. With parents who worked in sales, and a brother who would ultimately serve a full career in the military, she had no early exposure to the health professions. As a young girl, she considered psychiatry, because, as she put it, “I love people, and people seemed to always have felt comfortable confiding in me.” 

    But medical school didn’t seem like the best fit, and as she began considering her college options, she relied a decision-making factor that she admits would appall her today. She was dating a young man who planned on going into the military as an engineer, and she thought if she was going to be an officer’s wife she needed to pick a profession that would cross borders.

    Nursing seemed to her like the obvious choice. She applied to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and was admitted. The romantic relationship with the young man didn’t last – but the commitment to nursing did. And, Grimes said, “I fell in love with UAB.” She felt a deep and meaningful connection to nursing.

  • Profile: Amaris Elston, MS2

    The first year of medical school is a challenge, no matter the circumstances. It’s much more of a challenge when halfway through the school year, you donate a kidney to save your sister’s life. 

    This is exactly what Amaris Elston, now in her second year in medical school at UAB School of Medicine, did. 

    Amaris ElstonElston had already encountered a number of challenges on her path to her dream career as a doctor before she received the life-changing news that her sister, Dominique, then still a high school student, had a rare kidney disease that was causing renal failure. But Elston knew immediately that if she was a match, she would be a donor.

    Amaris Elston grew up in a close-knit family in Jacksonville, Alabama, the oldest of five siblings. Her mother had aspirations of becoming a surgeon before unexpectedly becoming pregnant with Elston during her freshman year of college. Still, Elston’s mother was determined to complete her studies, and some of Elston’s earliest memories are of watching her mother juggle schoolwork and a full-time job. Her mother successfully completed a college degree, and works with special needs children at the local middle school.

    Elston remembers wanting to be an actress, and at some point toying with the idea of becoming a lawyer. In middle school, she settled on the idea of becoming a doctor. She’d always made good grades, although her family’s financial challenges had made her formative years difficult. She got a job as soon as she was legally permitted to. “I knew my parents had struggled my whole life,” she said. “If I could help by contributing financially and not being as much of a responsibility, I wanted to do that.”

  • Profile: Cheri Canon, M.D.

    Many know Cheri Canon, M.D., Professor and Witten-Stanley Endowed Chair of Radiology at UAB, not only as an exceptional leader and clinician, but as tireless advocate for the advancement of women and minorities who are under-represented in medicine. But her advocacy wasn’t always part of her career vision. 

    canon19“For the first half of my career, I didn’t think about gender at all,” Canon said. “I actually thought we should be agnostic to gender. But then I came to realize that we can’t do that. If we’re going to get the equity and diversity that we all know we need, we’re going to have to be a lot more intentional.”

    Born and raised in Texas, the younger of two children, Canon described herself as a “tomboy” who “didn’t even think of myself as a girl.” Her parents were always supportive of her ambitions, which settled on medicine as a teenager. As a child, she had other helping professions in mind. She recalled an art project in second grade in which she proclaimed she wanted to be a veterinarian, make $3 an hour, “cook and clean,” and live in “Floradu.” 

    As an adolescent with a strong aptitude for science, she was taken under the wing of the local family practitioner, who went out of his way to mentor promising young people. Canon started working in his office in a clerical role, filing and answering phones. After a while, the doctor started pulling her into patient visits, and then brought her along when he made rounds at the hospital. It was during her time shadowing that she began to cultivate her lifelong love of medicine. 

    After completing undergraduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, Canon began medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. She enjoyed parts of the potential career path in medicine, and felt a particular affinity for surgery. When she decided on orthopedic surgery as a specialty, she took a radiology elective to further this goal.

    It was in that radiology elective that she experienced an epiphany: radiology was, in her words, a “perfect fit.” She characterized her determination to pivot toward this specialty as an easy decision. 

    This decision, however, rested less easily with her extended family, who questioned the suitability of radiology. They felt it would not be sufficiently patient-facing for their people-loving relative; faulty perceptions of the specialty played an important role. Canon’s career direction caused family rifts that were long in healing. 

    Her choice in where to complete her residency was also a factor in these family divisions. As she neared the end of medical school, Canon began looking into residency programs throughout the Southeast. There were many elements to consider: the institutional culture, the quality of the program, the city, and its proximity to where Malcolm Nelson, the man who would become her husband, was training in emergency medicine in Baton Rouge. 

  • Profile: Jenna Blythe-Tjia, M.Ed

    When Jenna Blythe-Tjia was picking fruit in the orchards of Wapato, as an 11-year-old, one day leading student recruitment efforts as a Program Manager in the Office for Diversity & Inclusion was the furthest thing from her mind. 

    Like most of her schoolmates, Blythe-Tjia worked as an agricultural laborer during the weekends and summers of her elementary and secondary education. This didn’t seem unusual to her: Wapato, Washington, where she grew up, was a community largely comprised of migrant laborers and their families as well as the members of the Yakama jenna blythe tjiaNative American Reservation on which the city was built. Consistently ranked as one of the poorest cities in the state of Washington, Wapato, with income levels at roughly half of the median income of the rest of the state, Blythe-Tjia’s rural hometown seemed to offer little in terms of opportunities for advancement. Most of the students at her school were on free or reduced lunches. The people who were considered wealthy in her area were those who owned the orchards, or their own fruit stands. 

    Still, she said, she never doubted that she would go to college. Born in Seoul, Korea, Blythe-Tjia was adopted at five months old by the Blythes, a couple with two sons who longed for a daughter. Blythe-Tjia was raised with a strong work ethic, and watched her two older brothers go to college with the knowledge that she would attend a university one day herself. Her parents, a postal worker and secretary, hadn’t completed college, but, said Blythe-Tjia, “they wanted their children to have better lives.”

  • Profile: James Willig, M.D., MSPH

    Had civil war not erupted in the Dominican Republic in the Spring and Summer of 1965, James H. Willig, M.D., MSPH might never have been born. 

    Like many people, James H. Willig developed in a complex, multifaceted environment. To fully understand his unique perspective and career track requires a journey back in time and through space, to the origin tales of a man from Oklahoma and a woman from the Dominican Republic who would become his parents. 

                In 1963, democratic elections in the Dominican Republic elevated Juan Emilio Bosch Gaviño to the office of president, replacing a military junta that had held power for two James Willigyears. Bosch’s proposed reforms angered business magnates and the army alike, spurring the military to overthrow Bosch and install their own candidate under military rule again in 1965. Constitutionalists, including Colonel Francisco Alberto Caamaño Deñó, supported Bosch; the United States, fearing Bosch would lead the Dominican Republic into becoming another Cuba, sided with the military and sent troops.

                Ultimately a peace accord was reached, mandating a new election. But U.S. involvement in the conflict had been tremendously unpopular, and Santo Domingo was the site of incredible violence.

                It was against this backdrop that native Oklahoman James Frederick Willig began looking for a job teaching history somewhere in Latin America.

                Raised in poverty in rural Oklahoma, James Frederick grew up in an environment in which racial separation and discrimination was normalized. This perception was challenged during his adolescence when he went to the “wrong” side of town to sell some possums that were the product of his day’s hunting. An African American man invited him into his home, offered him a cold coke, and insisted on paying him more than James’ asking price because he felt that it was fair. This encounter spurred a questioning process than continued as James lied about his age to join the Marines, spent time in the Peace Corps in Malawi teaching English, and completed a college degree in history. 

                In the mid-1960s, as James began joined the Job Corps to use his degree in history to teach underprivileged students in Massachusetts, the American civil rights movement was in full swing. James was appalled at how African Americans were being treated by the country he had served, and decided that the United States did not represent the values that he held dear. He began applying for teaching jobs in Latin America.

  • Profile: Latesha Elopre, M.D.

    These days, Latesha Elopre, M.D., Assistant Professor and junior faculty winner of the Dean’s Excellence Award in Diversity Advancement, is universes away from the first-grade classroom where her teacher publicly branded her as a slow learner.

    Still, that label lingers as she remembers her mother’s fierce defense of her daughter, and of subsequent afternoons and evening spent with flash cards so she could catch up to her peers. “I was in the slow reading group,” Elopre remembered,Latesha Elopre “the slow math group, all the slow groups.”

    It’s difficult to believe that Elopre, an infectious disease specialist who spent her residency and fellowship at UAB Hospital, and who infuses all of her activities with energy and enthusiasm, was ever considered “slow” – but this was a characteristic she had even assigned herself in her own mind.

    She remembered that one day a teacher named Ms. Smith pulled her aside to reassure her about her intelligence. “You can do this,” the teacher told her. 

    More than the teacher’s reassurance, Elopre always had her mother Glenda’s unwavering support and advocacy. “My mom’s my hero,” Elopre said. “I love her.”

  • Profile: Keith A. (Tony) Jones, M.D., Chief Physician Executive

    “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a doctor,” says Keith A. (Tony) Jones, MD, Senior Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs, President of the University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, and inaugural Chief Physician Executive of UAB Medicine. From the time he was only six or seven years old, enthralled by the adventures of the television character Marcus Welby, M.D., the medical profession struck Jones as having “such a sense of purpose.”

    “He was a hometown doctor, taking care of generations of families,” Jones remembers. “I was mesmerized by it. I always knew that medicine was what I was going to do.”

    Tony Jones 2The former Alfred Habeeb Professor and Chair of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at UAB (2006-2017), as Chief Physician Executive, Jones is now responsible for oversight, collaboration, integration, and strategy, with the UAB Health System, UAB School of Medicine, and the University of Alabama Health Services Foundation Board of Directors. The current reality seems far distant from the imaginings of the native Alabamian child who so admired the ersatz Welby.

    Although he was born in Anniston, Alabama, Jones spent very little of his early years there. While he was still an infant, his father was deployed as an Army officer to Europe. Young Tony grew to school age in France and Germany, and attended kindergarten in France, in a non-military French-speaking school. Jones and his family returned to the United States, to Fort Lee, Virginia, around 1966; very shortly thereafter his father was sent to serve in Vietnam. It was around this age that Jones discovered the wonders of the television show Marcus Welby, M.D., and the vision of making a difference to the community that the protagonist espoused. It was a vision he kept at the forefront of his mind following his father’s return to the United States, the family’s relocation to Fort McClellan, and his parents’ divorce when Jones was 10. Jones’ father moved to Chicago; Jones, his mother, and his two brothers stayed in Saks, Alabama.

    It was a time of great unrest in Alabama. The success of the civil rights movement had inspired opponents of integration to redouble their efforts. While segregation was technically illegal, many of the more rural areas in the deep South still experienced de facto segregation, as bussing hadn’t yet begun to intentionally integrate schools.

  • Profile: Peter Noel

    Peter Noel, M.Ed., Program Manager II in the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, Student Affairs, isn’t only the person medical students turn to when encountering challenges with their medical education, he’s also a long-time advocate of social justice and equity. Part of his current mission is to ensure that students at the UAB School of Medicine know that the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, Student Affairs, exists to serve the entire student body. “We are creating an environment that is supportive of our students of color,” he says, “but is also in the best interest of all of our students.”

    Noel is soft-spoken and projects an air of calm competence. With a storied history in nonprofit work, most recently with Peter NoelGoodwill Industries of Denver and the Colorado I Have A Dream Foundation (CIHAD), Noel brings a wealth of experience to working with students of a variety of ages and life situations to the table.

    Born and raised in Denver, Noel pursued both his Bachelor’s degree  and Master’s in Education at the University of Pennsylvania – which is where he met his wife, Gillian. Gillian Noel, M.D., MSCS, works as an Assistant Professor in Pediatrics at UAB. The couple shares a passion for helping the underserved and reaching out to those most in need of social support. In recounting this, Noel offers a self-effacing smile. “She’s definitely Batman, and I’m Robin,” he says.

  • Profile: Marquita Hicks, M.D.

    Marquita Hicks was going to be President of the United States one day.

    This was her ambition, growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Hicks was surrounded by family as she moved through childhood. Her grandparents owned a local beauty shop, Trammell’s Beauty and Barber Supply, and everyone in the family worked there in some capacity. Even Hicks’ accountant father pitched in on the weekends.

    Her close-knit family encouraged her to believe that any goal was possible. Both of her parents were college educated, and her grandfather had considered medical school after getting his bachelor’s degree. Ultimately, that dream was sacrificed to the necessities of raising a family, but the importance of education was passed down to the succeeding RS7622 Marquita Hicks 34 scrgenerations.

    “It was in middle school,” Hicks remembers, “that I thought I might want to be a doctor instead of President.”

    Hicks always enjoyed science and math, and when her mother started taking her to an African American female physician, Hicks had a sense she had found her calling. Dr. Martha A. Flowers, the physician, was happy to share information about the field of medicine.

    Flowers was one of only two female African American physicians in Pine Bluff at the time, although there was a large African American population. Hicks attended a predominantly black high school, where she graduated as co-valedictorian.

    Attending a predominantly black high school made her college adjustment somewhat jarring. Hendrix College, in Conway, Arkansas, was a small liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church – and it was primarily white. “I went from being in the majority,” Hicks says, “to really being in the minority.”