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Topics: Diversity & Inclusion, Education & Training, Five Questions, Mentoring

Visiting Intern Bucks Odds in Career Pursuit

Five Questions with Destiny Green on finding meaningful mentorship in a white male field.

You might call Destiny Green an overachiever. The youngest of four children born in the Midwest to parents whose only rule was “You will go to college,” she’s currently a medical student at the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine, pursuing dual degrees: doctorate in medicine and master’s in artificial intelligence. Her goal? To be the 34th Black woman in U.S neurosurgery (there are 33 currently), a pursuit she figures will take 10-15 years.

On the road to that goal, Green was one of a handful of medical students to spend the summer at Harvard Medical School enrolled in our Visiting Research Internship Program (VRIP). It’s an intensive eight-week mentored program focused on developing career skills for aspiring physician-scientists.

As if all that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Green is launching an organization called Underrepresented Women in Neurosurgery (UWIN). This start-up recognizes minority women who stand at the intersection of race and gender and take on the overwhelmingly white male world of academic neurosurgery. She’s doing it, she says, because she wants others like her to know that “no matter your background, where you come from or what resources you have, we’re going to help you win.”

We caught up with her just after final exams for her master’s work and fifth semester of medical school.

Given everything that you’ve got going on, what attracted you to the Visiting Research Internship Program?

The primary thing that attracted me was the fact that the cohort would be primarily composed of underrepresented students in medicine. The representation of Black and Brown students in medicine as a whole is quite low in comparison to other professions, and the difference is even more pronounced in research.

Being able to have colleagues and mentors who look like me or are from similar or even different backgrounds was really important to me as far as research endeavors are concerned.

I’m hoping to be an academic neurosurgeon 10-15 years down the line, and experience with research is very important to achieve this. I wanted to diversify my research experience as well as my community. At my home institution, Mayo Clinic, we have a multitude of research opportunities and endeavors, but being able to step outside of that and have a different learning experience in a new environment was very important to me. Working with colleagues from different departments and research specialties, I’ve learned skills such as adaptability and collaboration.

During your internship, you worked in the laboratory of Rani George, PhD, MD, who studies pediatric neuroblastoma. Was this your first introduction to basic laboratory research?

Essentially, yes. I did very little basic research during my undergraduate years before medical school, but definitely not as in-depth as in the Rani George lab, where my project was to investigate the immune response in neuroblastoma cell lines.

I’ve had more previous exposure to clinical research, where I might have, for example, analyzed medically relevant questions through retrospective chart reviews. But I hadn’t had much experience with tasks such as pipetting samples and managing experiments in a wet lab, where basic science is commonly conducted. So there was an interesting learning curve.

“It was as if the dream of say, matching at HMS for residency or being a prominent researcher in medicine was that much more attainable, because here was someone sitting before you who came from a similar background and history.”

Overall, it was an amazing learning experience, because it was not something I was familiar with when I  started the program. It took a lot of dedication and commitment to learn those skills and understand what I was doing in the short eight weeks that the program runs.

Did anything surprise you about the internship?

I think the most surprising thing was the workflow. With the kind of clinical research I’m familiar with, the workflow is more concise and straightforward. Typically you have a question, you query clinical charts for answers, you collect the data, and then you write about your findings.

With basic science research, things don’t always go as planned. You may or may not find an answer to the question you have, or the answer you find may not line up with what you had expected.

Also, when conducting experiments, you may run into technical issues related to how and how much you pipette. Even the smallest differences can change the results of your experiment. That was an issue in my case. I went through several rotations of doing the same experiment over and over again to understand exactly how to pay attention to those small details within my technique. So the workflow of these experiments is very dynamic.

All of this really surprised me as far as how in-depth basic science work is in general and specifically for the tumor research in the Rani George lab. Each step plays a role in the outcome.

What else stood out for you during your summer at Harvard Medical School?

Every week we would meet together in the morning, and the VRIP program would have a guest speaker come and talk to us about a plethora of topics. What stood out to me was the fact that not only were these speakers very prominent figures within the Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Mass General Brigham community, but they were also minorities. They were people of color. They were people who identified with similar backgrounds as those of us in the internship program.

“She taught me that diversity comes in many forms.”

It was great to receive insights around career building. How do we go from point A to point B? How do we use this opportunity with the VRIP program to develop our research interests and build relationships within the Harvard community, to possibly match there for residency?

My experience was heightened because it came from people who looked like us, from individuals with a level of relatability. It was as if the dream of say, matching at HMS for residency or being a prominent researcher in medicine was that much more attainable, because here was someone sitting before you who came from a similar background and history.

You’re a Black woman seeking a career in academic neurosurgery, a field in which Black women are underrepresented. Why do you feel it’s important to bring more diversity into neurosurgery in particular and medicine in general?

Neurosurgery is a very competitive specialty, no matter who you are or where you come from. Many of the challenges and barriers that prevent students from even getting interested in neurosurgery are based on perceptions such as “neurosurgery is hard.” “Neurosurgeons work long hours.” “Neurosurgery doesn’t have a good work-life balance; you’ll have to sacrifice your family.”

Often, mentorship can make the difference between overcoming those challenges and barriers or picking a different specialty. I’ve experienced that, and other students who I’ve talked to have experienced it. Within any specific field, the main driver for getting over that hump and going for that specialty with all of your heart is often who your mentor is.

With that comes representation. If you’re able to see someone who came from your same history, your same background, it’s an opportunity to overcome one of the many challenges that come with pursuing a difficult field such as neurosurgery. I’m able to relate to them in a way that says: “She did it, and she looks like me, so I can do it too.”

But there’s a flip side. Sometimes students may think that if I don’t have anyone to look up to who looks like me, then maybe it’s impossible; maybe I can’t do this. One of my very close mentors, who’s currently the only black female neurosurgeon at HMS and Mass General Brigham, reminded me that you don’t always need a mentor who looks like you. If you get pigeonholed into thinking that way, you’re likely to be disappointed. She said one of her greatest mentors was a white male. He didn’t look like her, but he advocated for her, supported her, and pushed her.

She taught me that diversity comes in many forms.

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