MARIETTA VAZQUEZ, MD, professor of pediatrics (general pediatrics) and associate dean for medical student diversity, is a trailblazer for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts both in her department and across the medical school. Born in Puerto Rico, her identity has shaped who she is today as a clinician and researcher. Yale Medicine Magazine spoke with Vazquez about her journey to medicine, as well as her present and future initiatives.
Can you recall any experiences that influenced you to go into medicine?
My most impactful personal experience was being a patient when I was 14 years old. I was a classical ballet dancer, but I was born with club feet, and I had surgery to correct the foot defect. That surgery went wrong and led to me not being able to walk for two years as a teenager. They told me that I would lose my foot, and I would never be able to walk again. It was very traumatic. I went through 10 surgeries over the years. I thought it would’ve discouraged me from medicine, because I had seen the worst part—when things go wrong. But the process of working with this plastic reconstructive surgeon who built me a new foot that I still walk around with today was one of my most inspiring experiences.
A second experience that really solidified my interest in pediatric infectious diseases happened when I was a medical student in Puerto Rico in the early 1990s. The AIDS epidemic was very much an epidemic of families at this time because of high rates of IV drug use. And within weeks of when I first started taking care of children as a medical student, my very first patient died from HIV. It was very sad, but at the same time, it stirred my interest in figuring out what was going on. Why did that happen? And what could have been done to help the situation?
You first came to Yale from Puerto Rico as an undergraduate and returned for residency after receiving your MD from the University of Puerto Rico. What drew you to Yale?
There were two things. One was [Yale’s] emphasis on inquisitiveness and the critical thinking aspect of things. It seemed to me from conversations with residents that this was a program where they would train residents who kept asking, “Why? Why am I doing this the way I’m doing this?” I wanted to be in a place where I wouldn’t just be told what to do, but would be pushed and encouraged to try to figure things out on my own.
Number two was the community. Coming from an island, I work best in an environment in which I’m close with the people that I’m working with. It was important to me not only to find a place where I would get good training, but also where I would not just be one little ant in a big conglomerate. At Yale, I felt like I could get to know people and people could get to know me. And fast forward almost 30 years later, this [still] holds true. I stayed because I love the Yale and New Haven communities, on top of being challenged daily and learning all the time.
You were the first Latina vice chair of DEI in the Department of Pediatrics and the first Latina associate dean at YSM. Are there any initiatives you have taken in these leadership positions that you are especially proud of?
In terms of [being] the vice chair of pediatrics, I’m most proud of how my department has grown and what we’ve accomplished together. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we have changed the culture for the better. Four years ago, we made a commitment to fundamental diversity training. We understood that to be able to have difficult conversations, we needed to understand the basic language of diversity. It was very difficult because we were the first and still only department in the School of Medicine where this foundational training in DEI, antiracism, and social justice is mandatory. It’s an expectation of not only faculty, but all trainees and staff.
In my role as associate dean, which I’ve not held for that long, I’ve devoted a lot of time to just listening and trying to understand what the important issues are and being the go-to person for medical students when things are tough. We’ve developed a medical student Diversity Council; worked diligently to better organize and expand student affinity groups; and are developing structure so that the voices of all medical students are heard.
These are not just my products, but the product of a lot of people who work alongside me, as well as those who came before me— including many women and underrepresented minorities in medicine at Yale who forged the path.
What are your future goals?
I have many! I work with a phenomenal team in the office of Diversity, Inclusion, Community Engagement, and Equity (DICE), and we would like to continue to expand our pathway programs and bring in more students from underrepresented backgrounds. Our goal is to not only provide opportunities to those students, but to show them that Yale is a great place for them to come and train. We also want to strengthen and grow the student Diversity Council and expand the student opportunities for community involvement. I always tell students that the minute you are admitted to Yale School of Medicine, you’re not just part of the Yale community, but also the New Haven community. A lot of what they’re going to learn will take place in our classrooms and at the hospital, but much of it also takes place in the community. I hope to expand the opportunities for medical students to really become engaged in the New Haven community and see it as part of their education.