VCU’s health sciences schools focus on diversity at every level of academia

Wanda Lipscomb, Ph.D., a Richmond native and the senior associate dean for diversity and inclusio...
Wanda Lipscomb, Ph.D., a Richmond native and the senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

Speaking to a room of faculty from Virginia Commonwealth University’s five health sciences schools Wanda Lipscomb, Ph.D., recounted stories from her upbringing in South Richmond’s Blackwell neighborhood. The senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine first attended a segregated all-black elementary school and later chose to attend an integrated school when Richmond students were allowed more freedom to decide where they would receive their education. After school she practiced math problems at the kitchen table while her mother ironed. 

“I learned math at the ironing board,” Lipscomb said. “I learned by counting clothespins.” 

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Lincoln University, the country’s first degree-granting historically black university. Her father had an eighth-grade education and her mother did not advance beyond high school, but her parents emphasized the value of education as the key to a better future.

“Everything that I use every day, I started to develop when I was a kid on Chicago Avenue on the South Side of Richmond,” she said. 

In her leadership role at Michigan State University, Lipscomb is responsible for diversity initiatives in the College of Human Medicine. She served as the keynote speaker at VCU’s inaugural health sciences admissions symposium on May 23, which aimed to expose VCU admissions committee members to innovative approaches that address the inclusiveness of their admissions practices. Lipscomb spoke in favor of holistic review.

When we talk about diversity in the health professions, we are talking about improving health care outcomes for all people.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, holistic review is a flexible, individualized way of assessing an applicant’s capabilities by which balanced consideration is given to experiences, attributes and academic metrics. In a holistic admissions process, selection criteria are broad-based and clearly linked to school mission and goals, promoting diversity as an essential element to achieving institutional excellence. During holistic review, admission staff gives individualized consideration to how each applicant may contribute to the medical school learning environment and practice of medicine, weighing and balancing the range of criteria needed in a class to achieve the outcomes desired by the school.

“Holistic review is really about welcoming different perspectives,” Lipscomb said. “We are looking beyond academics and saying that academic indicators alone are not sufficient.”

Each year, VCU School of Medicine receives more than 9,000 applications for about 200 positions. Rather than simply admitting students based on who has the highest grade point average and Medical College Admission Test scores, the School of Medicine admissions committee utilizes a holistic review process, reviewing each individual application to determine how the applicant might contribute to the school’s learning environment as well as to the medical profession as a physician.

“When we talk about diversity in the health professions, we are talking about improving health care outcomes for all people,” Lipscomb said of the process that encourages diversity. 

Among the approximately 65 faculty members attending Lipsomb’s presentation was Emily Hill, who serves on the admissions committee for the VCU School of Allied Health Professions Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences. The assistant professor of microbiology said the key message she took from Lipscomb’s talk was the added value of taking a holistic approach in the application process. 

“We want to make sure that we are aligned with the university’s goals and missions related to diversity and that we admit a diverse student population that yields critical thinking and multiple perspectives among students,” Hill said. “We currently look at academics as the major predictor of success, but the student’s experiences before they get to our program could be a great indicator for academic success.”

Later that week on May 25, about 100 undergraduate, post-baccalaureate and Ph.D. students from underrepresented groups attended a biomedical science training diversity symposium hosted by VCU’s Center on Health Disparities. The students, who were from schools across the Mid-Atlantic region, had all received educational grants from the National Institute of General Medicine Sciences, which is the National Institutes of Health division that funds diversity training.

Bryan Wilson, Ph.D.
Bryan Wilson, Ph.D.

“Some of you may be like me,” Bryan Wilson, Ph.D., said to the auditorium of students on the first day of the two-day symposium. Wilson received a grant to participate in a Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program, also known as PREP, at Wake Forest University before being admitted to the university’s School of Medicine for a Ph.D. program in molecular medicine and translational sciences. “Like many young males, I grew up without the physical presence of my father,” the deep-voiced African-American scientist continued. “My father had been in and out of jail throughout my youth and he was incarcerated with a 50-year sentence when I was 9 years old.” The 29-year-old hasn’t seen his father in more than two decades, but he told the group of students that his adverse experiences during childhood motivated him to work harder in school. “The details of my life might perpetuate a statistic,” he said. “But as you can see, I am not a statistic. My unique upbringing has instilled in me a will to succeed in biomedical sciences.”   

PREP is a one-year research training program for recent college graduates from underrepresented groups who are considering graduate-level training in the biomedical sciences. The program provides scholars with a paid and mentored research experience that encourages individuals from underrepresented groups to pursue a research doctorate. The VCU PREP program started in 2010 and has trained approximately 30 students, about 85 percent of whom have advanced to Ph.D. programs. 

Also funded through a National Institute of General Medicine Sciences grant, the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development program at VCU is designed to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in biomedical research. The VCU program, which started in 2010, provides research training in the biomedical sciences for individuals from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in biomedical research. IMSD scholars are admitted as early as the end of freshman year and are involved in program activities through senior year. The cornerstone of the program is a series of mentored research experiences with VCU faculty members who are leaders in the biomedical sciences field.

“The IMSD program has provided me with invaluable experiences,” said grant recipient Michael Kiflezghi. “They take us on conferences that allow us to practice presenting and speaking our science to the world and they invite speakers here to tell us about their research. It exposes us to science in a way that I would never have gotten before.”

Michael Kiflezghi, a recent VCU graduate, will pursue a Ph.D. in pathology at the University of Washington’s Molecular Medicine and Mechanisms of Disease program.
Michael Kiflezghi, a recent VCU graduate, will pursue a Ph.D. in pathology at the University of Washington’s Molecular Medicine and Mechanisms of Disease program.

Kiflezghi graduated from VCU in May with a dual degree in information systems and bioinformatics and minors in biology and chemistry. He will start a Ph.D. in pathology at the University of Washington’s Molecular Medicine and Mechanisms of Disease program in the fall.

Like Wilson and Lipscomb, Kiflezghi’s upbringing inspired him to succeed in school. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Eritrea before he was born. “My mom had to smuggle herself across the border because you’re not allowed to just leave,” Kiflezghi said. “You could be shot on sight if you’re seen leaving.”  

The Springfield, Virginia native attended Northern Virginia Community College before transferring to VCU in his junior year. He credits his motivation to do well academically to his background and his parents’ sacrifices. “There were times when I wanted to quit, but then I think, ‘I am here because my parents made sacrifices, so I at least need to finish this out,’” Kiflezghi said. “Just having that at the back of my mind helps keep me moving forward.”

While his parents stimulated in him the will to succeed academically, he credits the mentorship he received as a participant in the IMSD program for giving him the practical stills and advice that led him to acceptance in the doctoral program at the University of Washington.

“My mentors at VCU have helped guide me through the whole process,” Kiflezghi said. “The mentorship is so important because without it, you just flounder.”

 

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