These discriminatory events can sometimes be subtle or so quick and unexpected, that we question if it happened or try to explain away the shock or pain. To minimize these experiences we have to maximize top-down (policy reformation) and bottom-up (discussing these experiences) changes to address what is a systemic issue.
You can find all of our previously published Voices from Black Women in Medicine articles here: https://www.instapathbio.com/blog/categories/black-women-in-medicine. Words only go so far and actions speak louder than anything we could possibly say. This is how Voices from Black Women in Medicine was born. The lived experiences of Black women can only be understood when we hear from Black women themselves. And that’s what we set out to do with this series.
Black women make up about 2.6% of all active physicians in the United States. In a room with 100 physicians, you will only see three Black women. Think of what unique and thoughtful perspectives these three women hold – the ways in which they care for patients, how they relate to their patients – all of this is unique and cannot be replicated. From pathologists to colorectal surgeons to aspiring dermatologists, we are here to amplify the voices of Black women across medicine. We are pleased to introduce you to the first Black woman we are featuring in the new year.
Born to parents who immigrated from the Caribbean (Antigua and Grenada respectively), Tracey S. Otto, MS (@TraceySOtto) was raised in South Orange, NJ and attended Columbia High School in Maplewood, NJ. She completed her undergraduate degree at Cornell University (2013), majoring in Biology & Society, minoring in Nutrition, and competed in Division I Varsity track and field. She obtained a Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University (2015). She completed a dermatology research year working virtually with Dr. Steven Chen at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Dermatology and is currently a fourth-year medical student at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (New Jersey). As an aspiring dermatologist, her current dermatology interests include cutaneous oncology, complex medical dermatology, medical education, laser physics and skin of color. Extracurricular interests that she remains passionate about include diversity, equity, inclusion (specifically through policy reformation) and serving underserved/vulnerable populations.
Instapath: When and why did you choose to pursue medicine and your specialty?
Otto: I knew from a young age that I wanted to find a career that allowed me to be the best version of myself (employing kindness and socially interacting with others). I also knew that I did not like seeing people in pain and quickly learned that through medicine I could apply these and other traits through patient care.
As a Chemical Engineer, my dad exposed my sisters and I to math and science at an early age. Our involvement in STEM programs, having primarily women science teachers in middle school and (to a lesser extent) high school, and my early involvement in track and field led me to first consider orthopedic surgery. My third year of medical school would change that. I noticed that skin pathologies were prevalent throughout all my clinical rotations. Patients living with these conditions often resonated deepest with me particularly because their quality of life was greatly impacted. Dermatology uniquely offered both external and internal insight on the mechanisms of many diseases.
Instapath: When you made it known you were going to pursue medicine, did you face any discrimination or anyone trying to steer you in a different direction?
Otto: Unfortunately, I did. As an undergraduate freshman, I made an appointment with one of the pre-med advisors. As I sat down with her, she asked about my interests and desired career path. I informed her of my goal to pursue medicine. Her demeanor quickly changed and she spent the rest of the meeting telling me “how hard” it was and to consider “a different path.” I left feeling gravely disappointed. At first, I thought she was giving me classic and general pre-med advice. Then I realized she hadn’t even opened my file before making such a rash comment. After reflecting on the situation I realized I was likely discriminated against. Coming to terms with that truth was initially painful. I am thankful that reflection, talking about the experience with close friends and family, and continuing towards my goal (despite her comments) helped me heal and move forward.
Instapath: Regarding discrimination you have faced, what words of wisdom do you want to tell Black women in medicine?
Otto: There are so many words of wisdom and salient pieces of advice that have helped me tremendously on my journey. For Black women pursuing or currently working within medicine, I would advise the following:
1) Keep the people you care about close to you – medicine is a long road and being grounded by those who were there for you before the journey will help you get through it as well. The aim is not to just get through medical school (or residency) but to do so intact (academically, mentally, emotionally/spiritually, etc.).
2) Seek mentorship/sponsorship – you can’t traverse this path alone. Making mentorship a priority in each phase of medicine (and providing mentorship in return) is invaluable in developing relationships, networking and having the tools to maneuver within different fields. In some instances, finding mentorship with someone who looks like you can be difficult and may be a deterrent. Do not become discouraged or have that hinder you from other mentorship opportunities. Remain diligent and open-minded.
3) Don’t let a few “no’s” prevent you from hearing a critical “yes”– the path through medicine is wrought with different challenges, and facing setbacks and/or deterrents are not uncommon. Do not let these experiences or hearing a “no” undo your progress. These moments, like many, are temporary. Reaffirming your goals and ultimately achieving them is forever.
Instapath: Medical school is challenging enough as it is - what additional challenges were you presented with because you are a Black woman?
Otto: As a Black woman maneuvering through a career in medicine, early challenges included finding mentors who looked like me. I quickly learned however, that diligence and networking were key in first identifying mentors and secondly, developing professional relationships. I also recognized that one person does not have to meet all the requirements you desire. As you grow your network, it is ok (and necessary) to have multiple mentors, all who can impart a meaningful impact on your life. Importantly, there are other less obvious challenges that Black women, including myself, face such as worrying about wearing our hair in common styles (e.g., braids, twists, etc.) and how it may be perceived within the learning environment.
Instapath: As you have advanced in your education and career, have you been met with different forms of discrimination?
Otto: Unfortunately, like most Black students, I have experienced discrimination, including but not limited to microinsults and microinvalidations. The truth is that these discriminatory events can sometimes be subtle or so quick and unexpected, that we question if it happened or try to explain away the shock or pain. To minimize these experiences we have to maximize top-down (policy reformation) and bottom-up (discussing these experiences) changes to address what is a systemic issue.
Instapath: Who are your cheerleaders/mentors?
Otto: I am grateful to have so many cheerleaders and mentors in my corner including my family and friends. They also include residents and attending physicians across different specialties including dermatology. Their guidance, selflessness, affirmations, resources and support have been invaluable.
Instapath: Black women make up only about 2.6% of all active physicians in the United States. What actions, and by whom, are needed to diversify medicine?
Otto: Diversifying medicine is everyone’s responsibility. Often physicians of color, recognizing that diversity is critical, take on a “minority tax” aka bear the responsibility of forwarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. While it is important that their lived experiences allow them to speak to salient issues, these efforts are notoriously taxing. Therefore, allyship and collaborative efforts remain important. In addition, imparting meaningful change requires acknowledging that flawed logics of racial progress exist. They falsely describe society as rapidly and automatically ascending toward racial equity (Kraus et al). The truth is that active and continuous efforts are needed to sustain DEI initiatives including diversity. Funding and policy development/reformation are critical.
Join us in amplifying and elevating the voices of Black women in medicine. Everyone has a platform, even if it’s one’s own voice. And today, voices take shape in many forms – it’s easier and quicker than ever to communicate what matters to you. Share this blog today with a colleague through Facebook, Twitter or email. Here is the link to all blog posts in this series so you can read and amplify: https://www.instapathbio.com/blog/categories/black-women-in-medicine. If you are a Black woman in medicine and would like to share your story, we want to hear from you. Email Kristin at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s talk. Keep an eye on your Twitter DMs as well as we’ll be reaching out to Black women in medicine from all specialties and career stages.
Instapath was founded in 2017 by the same engineers and scientists who developed the original prototypes. Our vision is to enable patients to immediately know their cancer diagnosis instead of waiting days or weeks for the results. Instapath builds microscopy platforms to improve patient care in the form of faster turnaround times and prevention of high risk and costly repeat biopsy procedures. Further, our goal is to provide users with a seamless, modernized digital pathology workflow with tools to complete all pathology evaluations needed to provide the most precise and efficient diagnoses for patients.
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