Is There a Black, Latino Doctor in the House?

Rutgers University's ODASIS program is helping to close the racial/ethnic disparities gap within healthcare and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions. Its Access-Med program offers undergrads from underrepresented and economically disadvantaged groups career opportunities in the sciences. Here's how.

5881In the fall of 2005, Alister Martin seemed the most unlikely candidate for Harvard Medical School. Laid up in the hospital with “my face so swollen my mother didn’t recognize me,” he says, the high-school senior was recovering from a brutal gang attack. The situation had escalated to a point that law enforcement advised Martin’s mother, a Haitian immigrant, to pull her son from Neptune (N.J.) High School to avoid further trouble.

So Martin’s mom secured a $15,000 loan and sent her son to the private Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, where he completed his GED online while practicing 16 hours a day. Martin’s drive and unwavering desire to become a physician pointed him to Rutgers University’s Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences (ODASIS), whose Access-Med program prepares promising Black, Latino and other undergrads from underrepresented and economically disadvantaged groups for careers in medicine.

Four years later, Martin graduated from Rutgers with a 3.85 GPA and will begin Harvard Medical School this fall. “A miracle happened,” says Martin.

Each year, ODASIS serves roughly 500 at-risk undergrads, and nearly 800 of them have graduated since the program’s founding in 1985. Among the ODASIS class of 2009, 86 percent were accepted to medical school, up from 70 percent in 2007.

Still, Black, Latino and American Indian med students are rare. Three years ago, more than 40,000 people applied to medical school in the United States, with Blacks, Latinos and American Indians making up only about 15 percent of the applicant pool, reports the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), while comprising about one-third of the population. That same year, only 8.7 percent of doctors were from these underrepresented groups, according to a study published in the Journal of Academic Medicine.

The latest AAMC data shows only slight improvement: Among the 42,269 med-school applicants in 2009, only 16 percent were Black, Latino or American Indian. And this disparity extends beyond the potential physician pool—a mere 6.9 percent of people from underrepresented groups ended up as dentists in 2007, only 9.9 percent were pharmacists and just 6.2 percent were registered nurses.

But it’s critical that people from underrepresented groups be recruited into healthcare and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields because it will increase the quality of care for those groups and spur innovation. Black, Latino and American Indian/Pacific Islander physicians are nearly three to four times more likely than whites to practice in underserved communities, reports the AAMC.

The dearth of diversity in all STEM professions is what inspired the launch of ODASIS. In 1986, when the initiative first began, only one Black student from Rutgers was accepted to medical school, and he eventually became a radiologist.

STEM-Enrichment Success

ODASIS is a rigorous program that offers four years of step-by-step supplemental instruction, academic enrichment and career advice designed to increase the pipeline of underrepresented talent in all STEM fields. The program is managed by Trinidad native Dr. Kamal Khan, a tireless instructor and caring mentor. He ensures that a four-year academic plan is developed for each incoming freshman so he/she stays on track and pursues the appropriate opportunities.

As a result, these students, often the first in their families to attend college, gain self-confidence. Before ODASIS, says Martin, “I never really believed in myself.”

Academic customization and an integrated-learning approach have helped make ODASIS a success. As part of the Access-Med program, for example, Khan formed collaborative relationships with local healthcare institutions to provide students with research training, professional learning and hands-on experience. Most unique to this pipeline program is the seven-month MCAT (Medical College Admission Test)/DAT (Dental Admission Test) prep course.

Khan often starts working with students who have been identified as having an interest in the sciences the summer prior to their first semester at Rutgers. To facilitate the transition for these incoming freshmen, Khan developed a five-week summer prep program to expose students to basic math and chemistry that allows them to earn college credits toward their degree. This summer, with financial support from Merck & Co., Khan and his team are working with 25 students to help hone their basic math skills “so they can hit the ground running” when they enter college.

“Students were coming in not prepared to take science courses,” he says. “They didn’t have the basic college math to take a college science course. So [we’d have] to support them in the basics. And then by the time they finished the basics, they were in their second year and would say, ‘I don’t want to take the sciences. I’m going to be here forever.'”

But thanks to the support of local organizations, the Educational Opportunity Fund Central Office and Johnson & Johnson, Khan is creating a feeder pool of potential ODASIS students by working with local students as early as ninth grade. The goal: to provide laboratory exposure, SAT-prep instruction, college-admissions counseling and career advice. This year, more than 300 12th-grade students attended the ODASIS Saturday Scholars Academy, one of four separate college-prep programs Khan oversees.

“We also do workshops with parents,” he says. “We get parents very involved.”

What motivates ODASIS students to succeed? Setting high standards and being held accountable for their actions, says Khan. “If you walk into class late or you miss a session and get three red flags, you’re out of the program,” he says. “Why so strict? If you want to be a doctor and you miss the operation, someone dies. So we try to teach them to become mature at a young age.”

In addition to their regular coursework, ODASIS students are required to attend roundtable-style academic support sessions, study halls (up to 9 hours a week for freshmen), testing, motivational workshops and more. They also meet one-on-one with advisers twice a month to review their progress.

“If you’re not doing well, they will call your family,” warns Mekeme Utuk, an ODASIS graduate who just completed her first semester at Harvard Medical School.

In exchange, the students, who often come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, appreciate the support and opportunity. “All that I could take tutoring for, I took. I thought, ‘Why not? It can’t hurt; it’s just extra practice,'” recalls Utuk, whose parents are Nigerian immigrants.

The program also teaches undergrads how to study, critical for challenging courses such as organic chemistry. “I really didn’t know how to study. In high school, I would just cram for exams. But I didn’t know how to break down a chapter and take good notes … and learn through repetition,” says Utuk. “ODASIS made me a better thinker.”

Recommended Articles


  • Why are the no Asian or Indian stats in this article? Are they well represented in the medical field?

  • “But it’s critical that people from underrepresented groups be recruited into healthcare and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields because it will increase the quality of care for those groups and spur innovation”

    Does this mean that white doctors do not provide good quality of care? The more people separate, the less true diversity we really have. Does being black, hispanic, et al mean that they have to go into predominately minority neighborhoods? It is not because of the disparity inacceptance, it is the disparity of applications. Try to fix the root cause of inner city drop out rates in high schools by going back to the grade school level to keep children in school. The results will be that more will graduate, more will be qualified to go to college and med school. Simple math.

  • My 15 year old daughter is Bi-racial, has a 4.96 and wants to be a doctor. Her favorite subject is chemistry. Would this program be something she should look into?

  • I am a second generation American citizen from an imigrant family and I am female – no one went to college before me in my family, I received no minority special benefits or considerations and I never was introduced to any special minority program tax dollars created to help me. I never asked to get anywhere special because of my minority standing. Our family never received or asked for welfare, socical security or anything else from this country that we did not work for. I went to school at night to get my degrees while I worked during the day. I am proud of my success, especially that I do not use my minority rating to get special treatment. When I read these articles, it makes me feel like so many American minorities feel like it a right to get special treatments, and demand so much extra help because they cannot keep up with the norm if they do not get the extra help. That is not the case with me, and I would bet many other minorities that are hard working and adjusted feel the same way as I do. I cannot image why people don’t see that asking for special considerations and help makes us look like we are not as good as the majority of people.

  • HAHA are asian indians well represented in the field? i am guessing you have never been to a hospital. Asians represent close to 30 percent of medical students and 8 percent of medical students are Asian Indians. Also out of International Medical Graduates coming into the United States, 50 percent of them are Asian Indians. So they are way overrepresented!

  • THANK YOU, Luke CEO of Diversity Inc, for bringing KNOWLEDGE to the discussion! The responses to articles like these gives me job security!!! There is still a great need for Equal Opportunity & Diversity programs. I also think we must do a better job conveying the actual point/relevance/importance to these programs. Hooray to those who are intelligent enough or fortunate enough to utilize opportunities provided them. Is it wrong or am I somehow less of a citizen if while stumbling through a desert dying of thirst I take a glass of water from someone offering, instead of insisting on digging my own well? Get a grip people! We all want the same things… eat well, dress well, live well and have the love and respect of those we care about. We all want to be successful. Let’s get there any way we can…Congrats to those who are able to pay their own college tuition! Congrats to those who have worked hard enough to earn scholarships! Keep in mind that just because someone is a minority, it’s not a free ride or guaranteed money for school, the people still have to qualify by working hard and making good grades just like every other student in the country regardless of color/race/nation origin.

  • Last posting starting wth ‘Thank you LukeCEO…’ – what are you saying that only minorities need water while walking in the desert – Boy, does that enlighten me on your ‘poor us’ attitude. I am the writer above ..second generation American Immigrant .. and that attitude continues to isolate minorities from the whole of society. When can this website focus on the good things that come out of diversity ? As a manager, that is what I focus on with my diverse group – that includes those white male workers that are non-too-popular with this website. Come on – let’s get over this and start turning around the website to focus on the examples of working together! When someone joins my group, I don’t want an attitude that says ‘I am different and special – give me extra help to fit in’ – I want an engineer that says ‘how can I do my job the best and work with the team equally’ –

  • I feel the need to respond to the comment, ” does this mean that white doctors do not provide good quality of care?” and to the blatant sarcasm of the person who commented about Asian doctors. I did not come from a background of economic privilege, but I did become a doctor through a fantastic scholarship program (Navy). When I noticed the great disparity in the primary and secondary education that students receive in the Washington DC metropolitan area and the incredibly low numbers of students of color applying to and being accepted by U.S. medical schools, I figured out the connection. There is great discrepancy in guidance, exposure and opportunity among students attending different schools geographically in this area, and I am sure that is true of any urban area. I decided to address the pipeline – if students are not exposed to opportunities outside their neighborhoods before it is “too late,” that window (or door) will be shut permanently. My biomedical science summer program for high school students is designed to be diverse – students come from public and private schools, DC, Virginia, Maryland (and out of state), and come from nuclear or non nuclear homes. All staff are volunteers. The students do all the same activities and have the same expectiations. The dynamics are unbelievable. One of the recurrent comments we receive from the suburban students is that they had NO IDEA that students just like them living less than 10 miles away had to make decisions everyday that they never think of. For example, how many suburban kids whose next summer activity is sleep-away lacrosse camp have to decide whether they should use the $5 their foster mother gave them to take the metro to our hospital OR eat lunch (but not both)? How much of society obsesses about single parent households when some of our students come from zero parent households and still have the drive to succeed? So, the answer is yes, white doctors do provide good care, but there are many patients to whom they may not relate if they have not been exposed to the decisions that some of our patients have to make every day. If you don’t understand the culture, experience, or background that another person comes from, you will naturally impose your own experiences on them. This is a natural instinct, but can lead to dangerous judgmental decisions that can impact your interaction with your patients and result in poorer outcomes. For example, many of us take half a day off for a doctor’s appointment. What about the patient who is late for an appointment because they couldn’t get off work from an hourly wage job (and is not getting paid for the hours not worked) who has to find child care and take a bus? Why do office personnel yell at these patients or judge them because they are late for an appointment or why does the doctor refuse to see them if they are late? Cultural compentency alone can improve the health literacy and outcomes for this high risk population. The majority (and I recognize that not all white men have had the same economic, social, etc. experiences) physicians are and will continue to be the backbone of the health care system – they trained us, mentored us, and celebrated our successes and will continue to do so. Programs that will allow students of color or educationally disadvantaged students to realize their potential besides being the right thing to do, is economically and ethically sound and do not threaten the deserving majority. With regard to Asian doctors, it is time for all of us to understand that each of the census categories is diverse within itself. “Hispanic” for example covers at least three continents and a multitude of customs, traditions, values, and beliefs. The Asian population, additionally is not tied together by language, history, appearance/color, religion, or immigration accession point. Some of us are third and fourth generation and are still asked where we learned to speak English. While Asians may be visible as physicians, scientists, and engineers, they still only constitute less than 5% of the U.S. population. The sad reality is that there are only very few states where this may be true. AND furthermore, this stereotype leaves a huge underserved immigrant and first generation Asian population at an even greater disadvantage. And many of the languages, customs, traditions, values, and beliefs among these Asian cultures prevent them from ever advocating for each other or even themselves.

  • I am 20 and will be applying to medical school god willing in two years. I have wanted to be a surgeon since I was 4. My mother is a single mother and raised my younger brother and I by herself. My father is well educated but he has never been apart of our lives and well, I see flies more often than I see him hence not often at all. My mother came here from Haiti, I am Canadian born. We have never asked the government for assistance nor do we expect it. I have never been in any sort of special programs or am currently part of any special programs nor do I believe there should be for minorities. I was discourage and currently still am by many. As a black woman me becoming a doctor is a joke and as I out of 4 out of my pre med program at my private university. We are rare. I am the only one who wants to become a surgeon there others want to be pharmacist, dentist and a physician-maybe yes I know the only other black girls in my program. I think that we need to focus on exposing our children to not become football players and baby mamas and nurses aide and now depend on our government for everything. I walk into chemistry and to this day my teacher is surprise when I answer the question correctly. I walked into my math class missing a week to a scheduling error on the school and my teacher told me to drop out. A week later when I got the highest grade I was accused of cheating. Than whenever I would take an exam he would stand behind me. I ended up with a 96 he said its because I went to school with white people. I do not blame him for his thinking I blame the Hispanics, blacks, Indians who do not push their children to become more than a stereotype. I am a firm believer in order to be treated as an equal you need to work as hard as everyone else. I will reach the top by working hard and not taking help that is not offered to everyone EQUALLY. As a culture we are forced on fast money, and girls are focussed on finding a guy to take care of them we are losing focus and steam. We need to work to achieve our goals and see beyond instant mansions. Lets not wait for others to hand up MORE opportunities take what is offered to everyone else and work with it.
    I will get into medical school not because I am black in fact i refuse to apply to any school that I do not exceed their academic criteria because I know as a black female if I am even if my scores are slightly below what their are looking for I will most likely get in. I do not want favors I want to work like everyone else. Thats me and the pushes me to work harder.

  • In response to this last one, posted Sunday, June 27, 2010, all I have to say is that the way you were treated is racist and if it weren’t Canada you could sue the professors for it and if not win, at least prove your point. Any way in which you are treated that they would never have if you were white, is racist. And I’ve been telling people that my entire life only to have them, both in the US and Canada, fall all over themselves denying it. I’ve been told that it isn’t “racism” unless/until something bad is done to you as a result of it. Nonsense. If anyone treats you in any way they wouldn’t if you were white, it’s racism. People of all colours are apparently too stupid to see it that way. The “you’re only good at Math because you were raised with white people” B.S. – I would have called them racist on that one alone. And challenged them to a lawsuit, even if I was in Canada.

    Oh, and if you don’t want “favours” in medical school application processes, you won’t get in to the best schools and probably won’t get a job later, or at least not a good one. The best schools…well, merit alone isn’t the only consideration. Who’s going to want a black female doctor who went to, say, a State school rather than “play the race card” at the Ivy League schools.

    I’m Native American, was born and raised in the suburbs and grew up middle-class so to speak, went to all the best schools, top rated public college-prep school in California, and had to settle for a State university because being middle class in the 80’s meant that there was no financial aid for college if your parents “made too much money” and just didn’t want to pay for college because you were the first generation to go at all and paying for college was just not on your remaining parent’s list of top priorities, to put it in the nicest way possible. Things have changed now for high school seniors and undergraduates. To this day I can get science or math teaching credentials in several states but find myself unable to get a job teaching in most of those states because of all the little things that add up. I would love it if, someday, somewhere I went people weren’t so damned surprised when I told them I was a science teacher instead of an English or History or elementary school teacher. That alone says volumes. It’s the subleties that I’m getting sick and tired of. It pushes me to keep moving around until I find a place where that doesn’t happen – if people didn’t start off on the wrong foot, being surprised that I’m a math/science teacher, then we could take it from there and get on with my job prospects.

    You’re right, it is because of the stereotypes of all peoples with brown skin that the world is surprised to see a brown person succeed in math or science. Or computers or law or engineering, for that matter.

« Previous Article     Next Article »