Diversity Pipeline Programs Boost Confidence, Open Doors

Dr. Jessica Peña always had an interest in science, but a career in medicine seemed daunting to her. After all, she hadn’t seen doctors who looked like her. That all changed when she enrolled in Weill Cornell Medicine’s Health Professions Recruitment and Exposure Program (HPREP) which exposes high school sophomores and juniors to science-related activities. HPREP teaches students about specific career fields and the steps needed to become a physician or other health care provider. It also provides students an opportunity to meet medical students, physicians and health care professionals from underrepresented minority groups.

“It was the first time I saw medical students and doctors who looked like me, and they were all so excited about our potential,” she said.

Designed to spark interest in health careers among high school students from underrepresented backgrounds, the Cornell pipeline program introduced Dr. Peña to mentors that would have a profound impact on her future career.

But, doubts persisted, born from years of hearing both implicit and explicit messages about how she should set her sights lower. After all, even her high school counselors told her she’d never get into her top college picks.

Dr. Peña did get accepted to Brown University, and initially decided to study engineering. However, medicine kept calling and she switched her major to community health. To help prepare for medical school, she enrolled in another Weill Cornell Medicine program: the Travelers Summer Research Program for aspiring doctors. During this time, she reconnected with her mentor, Elizabeth Wilson-Anstey, while studying issues that greatly affect the health of traditionally underserved groups. Through clinical research experiences, Dr. Pena was taught how one pursues a specific research problem under the supervision of a faculty member, thus providing an early education into basic research techniques that could be applicable to any area of medicine.

“The biggest advantage of participating in the diversity in medicine programs was not just being told it’s possible, but also seeing people that look like you and hearing their stories of success—it’s incredibly validating,” said Dr. Peña. “Without those pipeline programs, I would not have gone to medical school.”

Dr. Peña went on to receive her M.D. from Weill Cornell Medical College and completed her residency at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She completed clinical and research fellowships in cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School as well as a Master of Public Health degree from the Harvard School of Public Health. She joined the Weill Cornell Medicine faculty in 2015, where she specializes in cardiovascular disease prevention in the HeartHealth program of the Dalio Institute of Cardiovascular Imaging.

She now engages with students in the pipeline programs, to give others the experiences she had. She said she sees the benefit of having doctors from diverse backgrounds in her practice, where she cares for patients who reflect the diversity of New York City.

Photo credit: Weill Cornell Medicine