Breaking Barriers: Dr. Rodriguez Vazquez on Encouraging Medical Students from Underserved Backgrounds to Pursue Dermatology

We’re shining the ProjectIMPACT Spotlight on Dr. Rodriguez Vazquez. Dr. Rodriguez Vazquez is interviewed by Roy Mendoza, a third-year medical student at Duke University and VisualDx Student Advisory Board member.

Dr. Rodriguez Vazquez, can you tell us a little bit about your journey to medicine?

Dr. Rodriguez Vasquez: My grandparents were in the fourth class to graduate from the School of Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico in 1958; My grandmother was one of only four women in that class. My parents met in that medical school and graduated together in 1987. I grew up admiring their dedication and love for the field of medicine, so I knew it was always an option for me to follow in their footsteps. It wasn’t until my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and I experienced the hopelessness of being a family member in the sidelines that I knew I wanted to pursue a career in medicine. I wanted to give patients and families the hope and reassurance I received when I found out my mother was cancer free.

What inspired you to pursue dermatology, and how did you overcome any challenges you faced as a Latina/Puerto Rican in medicine?

Dr. Rodriguez Vasquez: I applied to medical school thinking I was going to be an oncologist. However, because I took the MCAT a month after college graduation, I had to take a gap year while applying and interviewing for medical school. I received notice of an opportunity to apply for a gap year program specifically for students applying to medical school. The program involved working as a medical assistant at a dermatology practice for a year. It was during that year that my interest in dermatology began. I loved the variety of conditions I was seeing and the opportunity to do surgical procedures. Specifically, I liked the idea of being involved in every step of the patient’s care. Given my interest in oncology at the time, I also liked that dermatologists could manage cutaneous oncology and/or the specialized care for skin conditions caused by cancer treatments. Importantly, all the dermatologists I worked with seemed very happy and truly enjoyed what they were doing.

The first challenge I faced as a Latina in medicine presented itself during my first week in medical school. I vividly remember standing next to a new peer that was discussing the average MCAT scores of those admitted to my medical school and him telling me to my face that I likely got in because I was Latina. This was shocking to me because I never disclosed my MCAT score to him, or my college GPA, extracurricular or research experiences. He assumed based on my ethnicity that my success was likely attributed to affirmative action. For a second, I was gutted, but feeling like I had something to prove served as motivation for me to work harder during medical school. I wanted to make sure that I checked off all the boxes and that there was never any doubt that I deserved to be where I was. I ended up matching in one of the most competitive specialties in one of the best programs in the US. I learned to brush off those type of comments and recognize that my accomplishments are my own and nobody can minimize them.

What were the pivotal moments that helped you along the way, and how did they impact your career choice?

Dr. Rodriguez Vasquez: Mentorship is key. I sought out mentorship from female doctors that I admired. One of them was Dr. Yepes-Rios at Cleveland Clinic. She is the assistant dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and she was the first mentor that I felt had a genuine interest in my personal and professional growth.

Given my interest in cutaneous oncology, I also sought out mentorship from Dr. Allison Vidimos. We worked on the creation of a large cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma database at Cleveland Clinic. Besides working on research projects with her, I asked to shadow her numerous times because I found that the inspiration I got from working with her helped me remain motivated to study and accomplish my goals.

What strategies or programs have you been involved in to support and encourage medical students from underserved backgrounds?

Dr. Rodriguez Vasquez: I served as co-president of the Student National Medical Association and the Latino Medical Student Association at my medical school. These organizations were part of a joint chapter at my school, and we were very active. We organized numerous events, including mock interview sessions for students from underrepresented in medicine (URM) backgrounds that were applying to medical school, mentorship events with URM physicians from our three hospitals, a yearly graduation party to celebrate our URM grads, etc.

I found it difficult to find Latinx dermatology mentors, mainly because I didn’t know who the Latinx dermatologists were. To address this, I created the group Latinx Dermatology with the help of doctors Maria Espinosa and Stephanie Florez-Pollack. Our goal was to create a community of Latinx dermatologists. We share and create mentorship, research, and leadership opportunities for Latinx college and medical students interested in dermatology with the goal of continuing to work on diversifying the field.

How can we inspire more students from underserved backgrounds to pursue dermatology, and what can the medical community do to facilitate this?

Dr. Rodriguez Vasquez: Dermatologists in the community can help inspire more students from underserved backgrounds to pursue dermatology by offering them mentorship and/or research opportunities. This can be facilitated by joining and following groups like Latinx Dermatology and the National Medical Association Dermatology Section (NMA Derm), both of which are open to URMs and allies.

What advice do you have for aspiring Latinx medical students interested in dermatology?

Dr. Rodriguez Vasquez: You are needed in the field of dermatology. Spanish only-speaking patients light up every single time I walk into the room and introduce myself in Spanish. Racial and ethnic concordant care is important; it truly makes a difference in these patients’ perceived quality of care. I feel confident that they understand their diagnosis and management plan when I explain it to them in their native language and they can express their understanding back to me.

Seek out clinical opportunities in dermatology, genuine mentors, and research opportunities early and use these to remain connected to your goal. Follow @latinxderm on Instagram to find out about these opportunities and to join our community of aspiring and current Latinx dermatologists.

This Project IMPACT blog series was created to highlight leaders who are making a positive impact in healthcare by reducing racial bias in medicine.



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