Monica BaskinMonica Baskin, PhD, boasts of lists of remarkable achievements in the course of her career: a doctoral degree in psychology from Georgia State University; receipt of numerous research grants, including leadership of a nationally recognized NIH-funded research program to reduce and/or eliminate health disparities through community-based research; serving as Chair of the Jefferson County Collaborative for Health Equity as well as the Health Action Partnership, Advancing Health Equity Priority Group. Most recently, she was named the inaugural Vice Chair for Culture and Diversity for the Department of Medicine in the UAB School of Medicine.

But Baskin’s career journey began on a very personal level, with her father’s death from cancer during her senior year of high school.

“He didn’t live to see me graduate from high school,” she says. “That had a tremendous impact on me, my mother, and my sister. I started thinking about the ways in which people cope with different life experiences.”

Baskin grew up in Southwest Atlanta. Her mother was from rural Georgia and her father was from rural Alabama; both believed strongly in the power of education. Her father completed Morehouse College (Atlanta, GA) in spite of a diagnosis of eye cancer in between high school and college – a diagnosis that ultimately cost him his eye. Baskin recalls that her father had to work full time every other semester in order to afford a college education, but in spite of these formidable obstacles, he earned his bachelor’s degree over the course of 9 years.

She remembers being told during her formative years that she would need to be “twice as good” as her white peers in order to be as successful, although she believes that she was buffered from the worst manifestations of racism, both by her parents, and by the fact that her high school was predominantly black.

The protective buffer evaporated once she was in college, however. Not only was she still reeling from the recent death of her father, and the effect of his passing on her family, but racial tensions were high in her new collegiate environment.

However, Baskin remembers, the environment was very diverse, and professors proactively pursued conversations about diversity and inclusion. She was also fortunate to discover mentors who helped her navigate what she terms the “not-so-obvious rules of engagement.”

“Ultimately,” she says, “I realized that if my parents could handle what they handled in the course of their lives, I could handle whatever came my way.”

Although her father had discouraged Baskin from pursuing studies in psychology, believing that she could never make a living with that particular degree, Baskin’s father had studied psychology himself as an undergraduate and she felt drawn toward that field. Shifting her emphasis from veterinary science, Baskin became intrigued by the question of why seeking help for psychological distress was still taboo to so many people, particularly in the African American community. She saw family and community members struggling with challenging life circumstances without the assistance of mental health services, and felt that a change was necessary.

As she pursued her master’s degree and PhD, Baskin also began contemplating how health disparities had played into her father’s death at only 51. His cancer wasn’t detected until stage 4, by which point death had become a nearly inevitable outcome. She came to realize that African Americans were dying at much higher rates from cancer, as well as heart disease, stroke, and other chronic illnesses. These realizations spurred Baskin to pursue health disparities as a field of research after completing her PhD in psychology. Her research has shed light on numerous aspects of the effects of social determinants of health – race, class, gender and other factors – in changing health outcomes for disadvantaged communities.

Baskin’s most recent challenge is in shaping the future of culture and diversity for the Department of Medicine. She takes this challenge seriously.

“We are failing in diversity,” she says. “We are failing in gender diversity, and in diversity for underrepresented minorities – both in terms of numbers, and in terms of representation in leadership positions. If women and underrepresented minorities are not in the room where decisions are being made, their issues and concerns are not going to be addressed. If we’re not in the room, we never even know the conversations are happening.”

The paucity of women and African Americans in leadership positions also increases the pressure on Baskin and other women and minorities in leadership roles. “I am very careful about what I do because I am aware that my accomplishments will be examined to evaluate future candidates,” she says.

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Baskin serves as a sterling example to young women of color who might be considering careers in academic medicine. In spite of the time required to achieve career excellence, she’s also the mother of
 two teenage girls. She hopes that her example will show them that they can be whatever they choose to be. She gave birth to her oldest daughter only six weeks prior to defending her dissertation, and brought the newborn along to the defense; she went into labor with her second child on the same day she submitted a major grant application. While she has never missed a step in her professional development, parenting has always been a high priority.

She offers this advice to young people following in her footsteps: “Find a great mentoring group.” Baskin notes that her “phenomenal” mentoring group includes 4 different people who speak with her regularly to help spur and refine her research and pursuits. “Having their wisdom and their insights about where things are going is tremendously exciting,” she says. “There have been times when I’ve felt like I was done and it makes a difference to have someone in your corner. Mentoring relationships provide a safe place. Get that support system.”

Baskin’s research pursuits, professional memberships and academic work make for a very full schedule, but she’s embracing the new challenges and opportunities that promise to accompany her work with culture and diversity in the Department of Medicine.

“I want real change,” she says. “I want there to be substance to what we do.”