The disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color in the United States, combined with highly visible incidents of police brutality committed against Black men and women, have led to protests and advocacy efforts to address systemic racism across the country—and have impacted the priorities of many Yale School of Medicine (YSM) MD students, faculty, and alumni.
Former YSM Medical Student Council (MSC) President Jehanzeb Kayani believes COVID-19 and the recent incidents of police brutality have starkly demonstrated the necessity for systemic change. “Many students believe that we must do more than just practice medicine, and we must advocate for changes in systems that have such a significant effect on health and access to health care.”
Associate Deans for Student Research Sarwat Chaudhry, MD, and Erica Herzog, MD, PhD ’05, who began their leadership roles in the Office of Student Research (OSR) in January 2020, are committed to augmenting OSR’s practices and teachings to promote health equity. They encourage and embrace YSM medical students’ strong and growing interest in researching health equity and social justice topics, including structural racism, social determinants, incarceration, access to health care, and public policy.
For Ameya Kulkarni, MD ’06, and Aliya Jiwani, MPH ’06, a married couple who met while studying at Yale, the events of 2020 led them to shift their philanthropic focus, prioritizing gifts that would most impactfully advance social justice and health equity.
This shared desire for systemic change led to the recent establishment of the Social Justice Scholars Program. In the summer of 2020, this program provided a stipend to second-year MD student Autumn Nobles, to support her work on a short-term, social justice-focused research project.
Kulkarni and Jiwani believe that when giving philanthropically, it is best to start by asking people in the organization you plan to support what would be most helpful. Kulkarni had been MSC president during medical school, and arranged to speak with the then-current MSC president, Kayani, as well as Chaudhry and Herzog. These conversations happened as first-year MD students were submitting their summer research proposals, leading to the realization that the Social Justice Scholars Program would be an effective and scalable way to help students and advance social justice.
While OSR values all forms of medical research and every first-year student is entitled to summer research funding from OSR—$6,330 for summer 2020—named research funding adds prestige to the work, which is important in the competitive medical landscape. Moreover, Kulkarni and Jiwani hope that by acknowledging the value of a student’s work on social justice issues early in their career, it will help set the student on a trajectory to spend their life doing work they care deeply about.
Kulkarni emphasizes that his and Jiwani’s goal is “to spark a conversation about building something bigger, creating a structure for others to give to research support for social justice topics.” This would enable YSM students to focus on important issues in the world and allow this to happen on an ongoing basis. He adds, we must “capitalize on the moment and use it as a catalyst to encourage others to give.”
Chaudhry and Herzog are excited to have had this funding opportunity come up so early in their tenure, related to one of their top priorities. They share Kulkarni’s desire to expand this initiative and hope to be able to offer several Social Justice Scholar stipends each year.
The initial stipend has had a positive impact. Kayani states, “when OSR announced this Scholars program, there was a lot of excitement from our class because it felt that health justice and equity research was finally getting the recognition that its counterparts in basic science and clinical research have had for decades. We are fortunate to have alumni like Dr. Kulkarni who are actively seeking ways to give back to YSM and create a better experience and environment for all those who call this institution home.” Kayani adds, “it was a wonderful experience to get to be part of the conversations around this scholarship, and then see my classmate receive the stipend.”
Nobles states, “I believe right now, Yale is shifting to consider health equity as a larger priority,” though noting, “there is still more to be done.”
Chaudhry and Herzog say the strong interest in the stipend and the substance of Nobles’ research demonstrate why this funding is so important. Many highly meritorious applications were submitted and went through a blinded-review process. Nobles’ project, Social Determinants of Health Screening and Care Coordination Visits among Emergency Room High Utilizers, was selected based on its social justice focus, rigor, creativity, and potential to catalyze change in the New Haven community by applying well-developed study instruments to a local population. Importantly, her work leverages ongoing efforts by the Yale New Haven Health System to assess unmet social needs, increasing her project’s potential for local impact.
Nobles explains that in thinking about a summer research topic, she realized there was a lack of research on how care coordination intervention alleviates social needs, in areas such as food insecurity, housing insecurity, transportation, utility, and safety. “That's when I started thinking about how there is a multitude of social need screening tools, but how do we actually alleviate social needs?” She is focusing on the effectiveness of the intervention that occurs for Fair Haven Community Clinic patients with frequent emergency room use, who screen positive for a social need. She explains, if “the referrals/interventions aren't effective, the screening isn't helpful because there is a failure in connecting people to resources that would help.” Nobles credits her mentor, Assistant Professor Karen Wang, MD, MHS ’12, as instrumental in landing on this topic.
Nobles expects to finish her research by year’s end and will use some of her stipend to present her findings at a conference. Nobles, who hopes that future students also will benefit from the Social Justice Scholars stipend, plans to continue her social justice focus throughout her career. “I want to work at the intersection of global health and health justice. My goal is to help marginalized populations domestically and abroad, and I believe that cannot be done without a social justice focus.”
Readers interested in supporting the Social Justice Scholars Program may contact Michael Fitzsousa at Michael.Fitzsousa@Yale.edu.