Amiria Blakely and Jernell Simmons don’t need statistics to tell you the story of Alabama’s health care crisis. The two Heersink School of Medicine students grew up in communities without enough health professionals to provide care for the people living there. They have seen firsthand how a lack of access to medical expertise, particularly in rural and low-income areas, can impact health. And they are determined to do something about it by making a commitment to practice in underserved communities after graduation.

Today Blakely and Simmons are a step closer to their goal as the inaugural recipients of the new Karen McKoy, M.D., MPH, and Paul Lesser, M.D., Diversity in Medicine Endowed Scholarship. McKoy, a dermatologist and 1974 graduate of the School of Medicine, and Lesser, a gastroenterologist, made the gift to create the scholarship to help increase the diversity of the physician workforce, which is crucial for addressing Alabama’s health-care shortage, McKoy says. “It has been apparent for some time that many patients are most comfortable with someone with whom they can relate—who is close to their own racial and cultural identity,” she explains.

“The mission of the UAB Heersink School of Medicine is to train physicians to care for the people of Alabama, and in order to fulfill that mission, we must ensure that the next generation of physicians reflects the population of the state,” adds Craig Hoesley, M.D., senior associate dean for medical education. “Initiatives such as the Karen McKoy and Paul Lesser Diversity in Medicine Endowed Scholarship provide key support for attracting and retaining students who are historically underrepresented in medicine.”

IMG 0185 copyKaren McKoy and Paul Lesser

The Dean’s Office doubled the impact of the scholarship gift by matching McKoy and Lesser’s contribution dollar for dollar as part of its commitment to attract qualified students from populations that are underrepresented in medicine (URiM). That pleases McKoy, who treasures her ties to Alabama and received a merit scholarship from the state to attend medical school. “I feel indebted to Alabama for that start,” she says. Now she and her husband Paul, who split their time between Massachusetts and Georgia, want to “encourage graduates from UAB to stay and practice in their home state.”

That’s exactly what Blakely and Simmons intend to do. A Troy native and first-year medical student, Blakely aims to become a primary care physician to help “combat systemic disease that consistently impacts underserved communities,” she says. Simmons, a second-year student, says growing up in Selma, where finding a specialist was tough and many emergency cases were sent out of town, inspired him to pursue a medical career. When he graduates, he will be the first physician in his family, with plans to practice in a small city in need of health professionals.

The two students say the scholarship will ease the financial burdens and stresses of medical school, allowing them to concentrate on their studies—and their future goals. “I am truly honored to have the donors’ support,” Simmons says. “It feels good to know that I have amazing people supporting me and my dream.” – Charles Buchanan

The Dean's Office is matching gifts for URiM scholarships received through September 30, 2022, dollar for dollar up to $150,000. To learn more, contact Erica Hollins at 205-996-6839 or