Feb. 22, 2022
Meet four VCU alums who work in health sciences and are paving the way for equitable health care futures for all.
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Training doctors, researchers and other health care professionals who reflect the diverse populations they serve is an essential component of the mission of VCU and VCU Health to improve health care for all.
Briana James, Ph.D., Eric Freeman, M.D., Virgie Fields and Latrina Lemon, M.D., all credit their participation in various programs at VCU and VCU Health with bringing clarity to their goals and aspirations.
VCU, including the VCU Health Sciences Division for Student Engagement and Impact, offer a variety of pipeline programs to students in middle school through college and even graduate school. The programs are geared toward potential applicants whose background may limit their access to careers in health care and other STEM-based fields, or who are interested in working in underserved communities.
The stories of Lemon, Freeman, Fields and James and their far-reaching impact demonstrate how the programs benefit both the students and the broader community.
Briana James: ‘We need to make sure these populations are not overlooked’
Briana James learned the importance of building a community by volunteering with the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation at VCU while working on her Ph.D. in biochemistry.
The organization is geared toward increasing the academic success and number of students completing STEM degree programs.
“I participated in a sister program at UVA as an undergraduate,” said James, a post-doc fellow at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health. “The program showed me what I was capable of and allowed me to build a network of peers, people that looked like me.”
James joined LSAMP in 2016 when she started her Ph.D. program. She took on the role of program coordinator for the organization as a way to give back.
“It’s important that students, especially minority students, see people like them in graduate programs,” she said. “It was important to me that they saw someone who was a Black woman getting a Ph.D.”
While studying at VCU, James was part of the VCU Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Ph.D. Program, which provides training for individuals from groups traditionally underrepresented in biomedical research. The program is one of several research training programs offered through VCU’s Center on Health Disparities.
“Throughout my education I didn’t see a lot of minority people, especially women of color. If I wasn’t part of IMSD or LSAMP, I would not have had any Black mentors,” she said. “Those programs showed me there was space for us in STEM research.”
The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program was important in building a community, she said.
“A lot of my mentors and friends came from there. Having that peer camaraderie is nice. That network was a positive part of my Ph.D. experience,” she said. “Building a community is essential for success in any environment.”
As part of her work at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, James is doing research on asthma disease, which disproportionately affects Blacks, especially in underserved areas.
Compared to white Americans, Black Americans are 1.5 times more likely to have asthma and three times more likely to have asthma-related deaths. Multiple factors contribute to the disparity, including poorer air quality, poverty and less accessibility to medical resources, she said.
“It is important to include these populations in our studies,” James said. “Asthma is more burdensome for Black and brown people. Having scientists from diverse backgrounds ensures that these communities are not overlooked.”
The lab James has joined investigates how a special class of proteins called apolipoproteins are involved in the progression and severity of asthma. A proportion of patients with severe asthma do not respond well to traditional treatments, making them more susceptible to debilitating symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath and frequent asthma attacks.
“From my research, I hope to uncover specific cellular pathways that connect apolipoproteins to the development of asthma severity. I want to conduct research with direct clinical implications by highlighting potential targets for future asthma therapies,” she said.
James’ curiosity as a child, coupled with the support she received from her parents and teachers, have been beneficial to her career.
“They encouraged me, telling me you can be a doctor or a scientist,” she said. “They inspired me to stay on this track and never doubted how far I could go with it.”
One of the biggest impacts she and other Black women interested in science can have is being in the room and taking hold of these types of positions, she said.
“Once I saw other women of color as principal investigators and college professors, it made my own ambitions feel possible. When you can see it, you believe it,” she said. “When we think of those positions, we need to make sure these populations are not overlooked.”
Eric Freeman: ‘Being present for our youth is making a difference’
The devotion that Eric Freeman, M.D., feels mentoring high school and college level pre-med students, helping bolster their commitment to medical school, is obvious.
“Mentoring is truly a labor of love for me, and it is how I pay my educational blessings forward. I remember how much mentoring made a difference in the pursuit of my dream to become a physician. There are many doctors in this community that opened doors and shared their time and talent in molding me into the medical professional I am today,” said Freeman, who owns Old Dominion Pediatrics.
He said nothing compares to having a pre-medical or medical student walk the hospital halls with him on rounds and be able to interact with patients and hospital staff.
“I can see the spark in the eye of a prospective student when they get to wear their first stethoscope, begin to take a medical history, or actually examine a patient. I have witnessed how a pediatric patient can give one of my students a hug, or a parent encourage them, and how that can truly impact their resolve and confidence,” he said.
Freeman knew he wanted to focus on pediatrics during his third year in the VCU School of Medicine.
“It was the fire in my belly,” he said. “I’m so glad I stuck with it.”
His 30-year relationship with VCU Health began when he participated in the Health Careers Opportunity Program, a precursor to the Summer Academic Enrichment Program. He started the six-week summer program after his senior year in high school.
“The HCOP program gave me the opportunity to shadow physicians as well as the chance to consider research avenues at the medical school level,” he said.
During the summer program, he also started volunteering at the Richmond High Blood Pressure Clinic (now The Center for Healthy Hearts).
“That turned into four years of volunteering and working at the center in addition to meeting many of my future medical school professors,” he said. “It truly served as the launching pad for me to attend medical school.”
A member of the Admissions Committee at the School of Medicine, Freeman also serves as an adviser to the Black Men in Medicine student organization.
“My greatest passion is to recruit and support Black men on the undergraduate level to pursue a career in medicine or the health sciences,” he said, adding that while approximately 20% of the U.S. population stems from an underrepresented minority group, only 5% of physicians are Black. “Out of that, only about 2.6% are African American male physicians.”
“Because of the Black Men in Medicine organization, I have been provided with a platform to open discussions and increase male African American applicants into medicine,” he said. “We know that direct engagement with undergraduates can make a tremendous difference.”
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of first-year Black students entering medical school in the fall of 2021 increased 21% compared to fall 2020.
“Being there and present for our youth is making a difference,” he said.
When it comes to his own practice, Freeman is dedicated to providing the best care possible to all children in the Richmond area.
“We want to do all that we can to make sure we are effective in being able to serve our diverse community,” he said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Freeman is grateful that the School of Medicine nurtured his goals.
“It’s time for me to pay it forward to make sure that the people standing where I stood 30 years ago get the same time, talent and treasures that other mentors poured into me so their dreams can manifest in a positive way,” he said.
Virgie Fields: ‘Mentoring is a great way to give back’
Virgie Fields loves effective data storytelling, presenting information in a simple way to help users understand and interpret the data to inform evidence-based decisions.
“The user could be leaders within an agency, community, or state, or members of the general public. Everyone makes decisions based on their knowledge, experiences and influences,” said Fields, who worked as a health care associated infections epidemiologist for the Virginia Department of Health before taking on a new position with Lantana Consulting Group. “Giving people the information they need can help inform the decisions they make that not only impacts themselves but impacts others.”
During the pandemic, for example, a lot of her work focused on long-term care facilities. Nursing homes are required to report weekly COVID-19 related data to a national surveillance system and that data also is shared with the Virginia Department of Health.
“I created and updated every week an internal interactive dashboard that visualized the nursing home COVID-19 data. Staff at local health districts were able to view this dashboard and determine which facilities needed additional resources and support. Some of this information was also shared with other internal and external partners that helped provide additional technical assistance and resources,” she said.
Her work has centered on infections that a patient can get while receiving care in a health care facility.
“As part of the team, I helped facilities assess their data as well as their infection prevention and control practices and provided recommendations to address any gaps,” she said.
Interested in health and medicine from a young age, Fields graduated from VCU in 2013 with a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering before receiving her master’s in epidemiology from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Fields participated in the VCU Acceleration program during the summer before her freshman year. She also took part in the Center on Health Disparities’ Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Scholars Program for undergraduates.
“During the program, we learned from graduate and professional students as well as professors to get a feel for our freshman year classes,” she said. “It was an invaluable experience that gave us access to many resources to pursue a health sciences career.”
While she was working at the Virginia Department of Health, the agency implemented a focus on health equity, incorporating it into various functions within her office.
“There was an effort to think about our communities that may not have access to health care or the resources they need,” she said. “Using data, we would look at what we knew about different communities and areas across the state and determine where resources could be prioritized.”
She’s proud that her work has been impactful.
“Sometimes we are not able to see or feel that we have made an impact, but we know we do with the work we have done to protect patients and staff in health care facilities, especially during the pandemic,” she said.
Away from work, Fields strives to make a difference in the community at large.
“Because of my background, I have been asked to speak on several panels to share my public health career journey with students. Outside of academic settings, I have also shared information and answered questions specifically about COVID-19 with members of the community at large, so that any individual can have the information they need to best protect themselves during the pandemic,” she said.
Fields also volunteers with a mentorship program sponsored by the VCU African American Alumni Council.
“I enjoy sharing my experiences and perspective as a Black and Asian woman who grew up in rural Virginia. I really want to help people. I’ve always been that way,” she said. “I especially like helping other people who look like me reach their goals. Mentoring is a great way to give back.”
The pandemic has highlighted the inequities and injustice that many communities of color, including the Black community, experience daily. Health equity can be achieved by understanding and addressing the needs of all populations, Fields said.
“Utilizing data can help determine what needs are not being met. Data can be used to provide actionable insights so that we can target resources and effective education where they are needed,” she said. “Ultimately, my work helped various stakeholders understand where the gaps were in our health care facilities and where the resources needed to go. A good number of the patients and residents receiving care in Virginia’s health care facilities are Black, so we want to make sure that each facility has all the resources they need to give each patient the best care possible.”
Latrina Lemon: ‘Every day there is something new. That’s part of why I like family medicine and primary care.’
While serving as a faculty member at the University of Maryland Department of Family and Community Medicine in Baltimore, Latrina Lemon, M.D., found the city to be a mixture of cultures and socioeconomic statuses with a high rate of teen pregnancy, homelessness and substance use.
“We managed all of this in our clinic, along with teaching medical students and residents how to adapt to provide care to patients even with limited resources,” said Lemon, now medical director of Capitol Square Healthcare for State Employees. “We spent a lot of time managing chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma, which is the heart of what I do as a family doctor.”
The issues she faces in Richmond as a primary care doctor are similar to those she saw in Baltimore.
“Currently, I see many patients needing help and/or guidance in managing their chronic conditions,” she said. “Finding work-life balance to ensure they take care of their physical and mental wellness is a common topic of the patients I care for."
As medical director, Lemon sees dozens of state workers in the clinic each day. The clinic, a joint venture between the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management and VCU Health, is the only clinic in Virginia solely for state employees.
“We are open to all levels of state employees,” said Lemon, who graduated from the VCU School of Medicine in 2005 and obtained a master’s degree in health administration from the VCU College of Health Professions in 2016. “I get to see a full spectrum of patients, from pediatrics to adults. One dynamic I like is that every day there is something new. That’s part of why I like family medicine and primary care.”
As a medical student, Lemon participated in the four-year International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program for students interested in working with medically underserved populations in urban, rural or international settings.
The program helped expose her to different primary care practices in inner-city settings.
“I got to see how they establish their practices and that reaffirmed my interest in family medicine,” Lemon said. “I was able to directly observe and participate in the care of vulnerable patient populations. These are skills that I learned outside of the classroom and have carried forward into practice.”
Her interest in the medical field dates back to kindergarten, partly due to the fact that her mother was a nurse.
“I had early exposure to health care. I wanted to be a doctor, especially a pediatrician back then,” she said.
After finishing the I2CRP program, Lemon wanted to work in an inner-city environment. She served in a family medicine residency in Baltimore, Maryland.
“The Greater Baltimore area has a larger inner-city environment than Richmond,” she said. “I had a lot of exposure to the health care concerns in children, adolescents and older patients. I also had exposure to a family medicine physician that worked in the hospital in addition to working in the community. That helped me to see more of the continuity of care aspect.”
After finishing her residency in 2008, Lemon worked for several hospital systems in both in-patient and outpatient care before returning to VCU Health in 2015.
Working at Capitol Square Healthcare, which serves as a primary care provider for individuals who choose to use the clinic, she has noticed that many patients don’t have primary care providers.
“Many state employees have come to us because of our facilities,” she said. “We help coordinate any care they need. When we find patients who see us for episodic purposes and only see specialists, we start that conversation to ensure the patient understands why having a primary care provider is important.”
Some of the feedback the clinic receives is “how easy and transparent our care is to patients,” she said. “If we talk about starting a new medicine or diagnosis, we explain fully so they understand it and actually act on it. We have improved health outcomes because of that.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to fix a broken link.
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