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Underrepresented Minorities in Science :The Importance of Being Mentored


I am an African-American woman from Houston, Texas, who has chosen a career in veterinary pathology. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I never deviated from my goal. Although I remember people saying things like "Why a veterinarian? Why not a doctor [i.e., physician]?" and "Veterinary school is so hard to get into; are you sure that you want to do this?" I do not recall ever having heard statements such as "Oh, but you're a girl; that's not a profession for you" or "Black people don't generally choose that kind of work." It never entered my mind that I would not achieve my goal because of race, gender, or any other reason. Happily, that turned out to be true!

I finished high school at the age of 16 (the average age in the United States is 18) and went directly on to college at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in Philadelphia. I spent eight consecutive years there, four as an undergraduate and four in veterinary school, thus receiving my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at the tender age of 24. I did not choose to go to an African-American college or university because, with one exception, none have veterinary schools. Acceptance into veterinary school was more difficult to achieve than acceptance into medical school: It depended, among other things, on the student's state of residency at the time the application was submitted. Penn was my first choice because it had both an undergraduate and a veterinary institution and because it was located in an urban area. I also believed that I would be better accepted as an African-American student at an urban campus such as Penn.

During my first year in veterinary school I became disenchanted with the idea of practicing medicine and wondered for several months if I had worked my entire life for nothing! But in the first semester of my sophomore year, I discovered pathology and my inspiration returned. I plunged wholeheartedly into the discipline, and I was awarded the medal for achievement in pathology when I graduated from veterinary school.

Veterinarians who wish to train in pathology can follow three paths: 1) residency training followed by board certification; 2) research leading to a master's degree or a Ph.D.; or 3) a combination of the two. I favored diagnostic pathology over research and decided to pursue a residency and board certification.

When the time came to apply for my residency, I was extremely careful in selecting schools. But I considered neither my race and sex nor those of the faculty at the schools to which I applied. What I did reflect on was the reputation and location of each school. I love the city and did not wish to spend three to four additional years studying in an environment that did not suit me. I also believed that a city environment would supply the African-American influence in my life that graduate school was not likely to supply. I did not stop to consider that the psychological environment and politics of the school itself could be infinitely more important than whether or not it was in a rural location.

Even if I had thought more about the demographics of the faculty at the schools that I wanted to attend, I would not have found much difference among them. Most of these institutions had a white, male-dominated faculty, despite the rapidly growing number of women entering the field of veterinary medicine. I had not noticed my lack of a mentor during my years at Penn, because there was a minority presence among the students at the veterinary school and I felt comfortable there. Had I realized how intense my graduate school experience would be, I might have given more consideration to my need for mentoring.

I chose to go to Ohio State University (OSU), Columbus--a fairly conservative, midwestern city. When I arrived, the faculty were all white, and approximately one-third were women. Two additional women joined the faculty while I was student, one of whom was Japanese. Unfortunately, I did not identify well with any of them. My age had a lot to do with this, but race was certainly a contributing factor. There were few pathology residents, and a clear distinction was made between us and the graduate students, who had minimal service duty and spent most of their time in the lab. All of the students were white. Another aspect that I found intimidating was the fact that my primary interest was diagnostic pathology, whereas the faculty was strongly research oriented. Because of these factors, I felt that I stuck out like the proverbial "sore thumb."

Those years were extremely formative, but they were among the most difficult that I have yet lived. Although I had African-American friends in Columbus, none of them could truly appreciate the trials that I experienced. It was at professional congresses that I began to meet other African-American pathologists, two of whom live and work in Europe. In sharing my experiences with them, I began to realize how important having a professional relationship with them would be for me. I have had the good fortune to strengthen these ties over the years.

My career after OSU has consisted of working as a diagnostic pathologist and then as a toxicological pathologist in the United States and France. Again, my choices in applying for and accepting these positions were not dictated by my race or gender. And when I moved to Paris, I once again found myself as the only African-American pathologist--indeed the only black pathologist--this time in the entire country! Fortunately, the professional relationships that I established while in the United States continue to serve as my support network.

To my knowledge, being an African-American woman has had no influence on my professional activities in France. Ironically, it was here that I finally found a female mentor, a French-Canadian pathologist who is also an alumna of OSU. Although we have gone on to work for different companies on different continents, we still call to talk about both professional and personal issues from time to time. I have found her friendship and professional advice to be invaluable, and I will continue to seek her counsel on future challenges.