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On the air with Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako

Yale Med Max
Photo by Harold Shapiro

Something about Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako sets one at ease. Perhaps it’s his disarming posture, or his warmth, intelligence, and candor. Maybe it’s his sincere passion for equity—always a welcome sight in a doctor. Or maybe it’s a combination, along with other, less tangible attributes.

These traits, which are sure to be prized by future patients, also make Tiako a great conversationalist. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that he runs a successful podcast when he can grab a couple hours away from class, rounds, or his studies. The podcast is called Flip The Script! (@flipscriptpod on Twitter). Inspired partly by the Health Justice Collaborative (begun by Robert Rock, MD ’18 and Tehreem Rehman, MD ’18) and partly by popular podcasts like NPR’s Code Switch and Radio Ambulante, Gimlet Media’s The Nod, and LoudSpeakers Network’s The Read (which Tiako describes as a “PG-13 pop-culture podcast”), Tiako has set out to create conversations around health care justice in his limited spare time.

Code Switch gave me the words to describe things I’d seen; it helped me acquire a language I didn’t have to express things I knew. That’s the power of podcasting—you’re listening to subject-matter experts alongside individual stories, rather than the hosts simply regurgitating talking points,” says Tiako.

Tiako speaks energetically and authoritatively about the podcasts he follows and their impact on his evolution as a human. Before jumping into podcasting himself, he was an avid listener first. Listening to podcasts remains an important part of his daily routine.

“Whenever possible, I’ve got headphones in,” says Tiako, tapping his right ear. “If you see me walking down the street, chances are, I’m listening to a podcast.”

Maximizing free time is how YSM students balance their academic obligations with the rest of their lives. Tiako is no different, saving his time for writing and broadcasting. Even his mentors are impressed by his dedication to advocacy and participation in school life.

“Max is a very, very special individual,” says Marietta Vazquez, MD, associate professor of pediatrics. “He is an outstanding medical student, but also much more than that, Max is a gifted writer, journalist, leader, and innovator.” Asked what she thinks of his podcast, Vazquez says: “His themes stem from his life experiences, but he speaks to all of us. I find myself drawn to the themes and nodding while listening to his podcasts.”

Anna Reisman, MD, is an associate professor of medicine, director of the Program for the Humanities in Medicine, and director of the Yale Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop. She says she’s awed by his commitment and enthusiasm: “Max is terrific. I don’t know how he does it. During the frenzy of his clinical year, he managed to create a podcast and write and publish multiple essays. He presented at Medicine Grand Rounds and he performed at a New Haven Pecha Kucha. Max is fearless and honest in his writing, he digs deep, he wants to make people think and grapple with issues that might make them uncomfortable.”

This call to challenge people’s expectations and knowledge is key to what Tiako hopes to accomplish with his career as a doctor. It also explains why some of his favorite episodes feature experts who are not themselves physicians.

“Historians, anthropologists—these are the type of people who give listeners a different perspective on issues,” says Tiako. One recent guest is Carolyn Roberts, PhD, who focuses on 17th- and-18th century medical history—specifically, the role physicians played in the British slave trade.

Tiako, who moved to the United States from Cameroon when he was 16 years old, attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. There he studied civil and environmental engineering, the field in which he originally thought to pursue a career. He took a master’s in science in bioengineering at Georgia Tech, with plans of earning a PhD, when he realized that what he really wanted to do was be a physician. He then worked in a mechanobiology lab at Vanderbilt.

“Bench research wasn’t quite for me,” says Tiako. “At Howard, I developed a passion for social justice. Being a physician pulls everything together: science, thinking of people’s medical and social issues, and helping them with those.”

Despite his positive experiences at Howard, when medical school came down to a choice between returning to Howard and attending Yale, Tiako decided to take a chance on New Haven. He has not regretted that decision.

An abiding source of inspiration for Tiako is the work of his academic advisor, Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, MHS ’06, associate professor of medicine, director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center, and director of the Center for Research Engagement. Tiako views Nunez-Smith’s focus on health infrastructure—particularly the implications of climate change—as particularly urgent. He has published episodes on disaster relief as a way of interacting with recent hurricanes that have affected Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and much of the U.S. South.

“Max is a powerful agent for good within the medical school,” says Matthew Grant, MD, assistant professor of medicine. “He has shared with me so many wonderful articles, podcasts, and books around issues of inequality, and furthermore is a regular contributor to YSM’s HHH forum, a critical reading and discussion group led by doctoral candidates in the history of medicine program.”

Although Tiako announced a six-month hiatus from Flip the Script in January 2019 to study for his medical licensing exams and complete some senior clinical rotations, he hopes to continue it once that intensive process is complete. “I have a series on incarceration and the impact that it has on health that will be coming out soon,” he says. “Beyond that, unfortunately, there are plenty of topics to cover in the world. Plenty of material… too much material.”