My research interests have evolved over the years. As an undergraduate at Michigan, I spent three months in Hangzhou, China studying iron deficiency and its effects on cognition in 9-and-18-month-old infants. Although I spent most of the summer coding videos and entering data, I learned much more about the process of conducting research, which involved lots of reading, asking questions, maintaining a healthy amount of skepticism, and most importantly, embracing the unknown.
After graduation, I spent one year working as an AmeriCorps Vista member, where I helped facilitate college access workshops for 9th graders and their families. As a Vista, I also had to live at the poverty level for Washtenaw County (the county Ann Arbor is located in), which was $13,000 at the time. Not only did I have to apply for food stamps and learn how to budget, among other life skills, but I also began to understand the financial hardship that many families in our country face on a day-to-day basis. Not knowing if you can afford rent, healthy food, or health insurance is something that many of us in medicine, including myself, don’t have to think about and often take for granted. This experience sparked my interest in health disparities research and led me to Johns Hopkins, where I earned a master’s degree in epidemiology.
As a graduate student, my research focused on the relationship between the social determinants of health (e.g., education level) and obesity using data from a community study called ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities). During my time in graduate school, my mentor Dr. Josef Coresh encouraged me to apply for a Diversity Supplement, a grant awarded to minority students to increase diversity in the research workforce. I learned in graduate school about the importance of choosing the right research mentor—someone who invests in your academic success and personal well-being, and connects you to others if there is a need they can’t meet. Typically, the process of finding the right mentor is often trial and error. I still remember the days when Dr. Coresh and I would go to spin class or eat dinner at Fells Point in Baltimore.
When deciding on where to attend medical school, I wanted to be at a place with excellent clinical training, ample opportunities for research, and a vibrant, diverse, and supportive community. Michigan fit all three criteria. I also knew that I wanted to get involved in research in medical school, but I was unsure about what kind of doctor I wanted to be and how to get involved. I reached out to an upperclassman I knew who had taken a year away from medical school to participate in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Medical Research Scholars Program. He loved his experience, and he and other mentors at Michigan encouraged me to apply.
The NIH Medical Research Scholars Program is a year-long, paid, mentored research fellowship on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. I chose to apply because the NIH is at the forefront of medical research. They have the world’s leading experts in every field of medicine, and all patients who receive care at the NIH Clinical Center (the nation’s largest research hospital) are on a research protocol. During the COVID-19 pandemic, being surrounded by the experts leading the charge to develop a safe and effective vaccine and other medical devices and therapies to combat the virus was truly a privilege.
At the NIH, I wanted to try something new and gain additional skills to complement my public health background. I also felt that to understand health disparities better, I needed to have a solid understanding of the biological determinants of health. At the NIH, I worked with Dr. Rebecca Brown, a fantastic mentor and world expert in lipodystrophy, studying the mechanisms of action of leptin therapy and associated changes in energy expenditure in patients with partial and generalized forms of lipodystrophy. The analyses I conducted led to new questions and hypotheses that turned into new projects.
At the NIH, there were opportunities to take classes, attend national (virtual) meetings, listen to lectures by medical experts, and explore some of the great restaurants in D.C. My experience at the NIH was nothing short of transformative. I worked on exciting projects, formed new friendships with my co-scholars, learned from the brightest minds, and even had time to make it to my classmate’s wedding.
My journey in medicine has been filled with twists and turns, but each unique experience has helped shape me into the kind of physician I aspire to be. It’s okay to delve into new experiences even if it’s uncomfortable. Learning what you like and don’t like is critical early in your career, and having supportive mentors who have your best interest at heart can be life-changing.
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Emmanuel (Manny) Quaye is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. He’s interested in pursuing a career in internal medicine and enjoys weightlifting and listening to Afrobeats.