Manaka Sato has experience navigating barriers. Born in Japan and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, she is the translator for her mother, who doesn’t speak English. “I’ve seen firsthand the many disconnects between patients and healthcare providers when there are language barriers and communication difficulties,” she says.

Manaka Sato

Bara Saadah knows about barriers, too. Growing up, he had a strong interest in science, but the son of Arab immigrants had little exposure to the careers available and was unfamiliar with the steps needed to pursue them. “I didn’t have access to programs that provided that information, so I did a lot of online research and then tried to create opportunities for myself by looking at what others had done,” he says.

Today, as students at Carle Illinois College of Medicine, Manaka and Bara bring their experiences navigating barriers to their work as members of the College’s Diversity Committee. They are two of four medical students who join faculty, staff, and leadership to address issues of diversity in the College and the profession and create opportunities to advance inclusivity.

Bara Saadah

Stephen Boppart, M.D., Ph.D., the College’s executive associate dean and chief diversity officer, says the perspectives of students like Manaka and Bara and the longstanding work of the committee are extremely valuable in “advancing the conversation as we tackle the disparities not only in medical education but in the delivery of healthcare. To fulfill our mission and vision, it is absolutely essential to address racism and ensure diversity.”

The committee is just one prong of the College’s multi-faceted and sustained approach to do just that. Earlier this year, Carle Illinois centered those efforts in a plan to address racism as a health crisis. “Through very specific commitments, we are shining a spotlight on health disparities and racism in healthcare and continuing to take concrete steps to do something about it,” says Boppart.

Dr. Stephen Boppart

Those steps include new collaborative efforts, like the creation of Carle Illinois’s new Office of Diversity and Inclusive Excellence and joining the the legacy College of Medicine on a new joint task force on Racial Reform and Social Justice.

It also involves expanding the innovative work already being done in the College. Ruby Mendenhall, Ph.D., assistant dean for diversity and democratization of health innovation, leads several of those efforts to “help create an environment in which we train future physician-leaders to develop solutions that address disparities, improve human health, and make healthcare available to all.”

The Health Maker Lab is one of the efforts she champions. This network of maker labs and design spaces across the UIUC campus gives students and citizen-scientists access to equipment – often referred to as a “billion dollar garage” – and expertise that allow them to use their imagination to create ways to improve health.

Dr. Ruby Mendenhall

“As a College known for innovation and creativity, we are in a unique position to democratize health innovation,” says Mendenhall. “The Health Maker Lab is a way for the larger community to create solutions to challenges they see, including those related to racism as a health crisis, by providing a platform for them to submit ideas and an ecosystem to turn those ideas into a product, a business, or a nonprofit.”

For instance, early in the pandemic, those associated with the Health Maker Lab developed inexpensive and scalable personal protective equipment and frontier COVID-19 testing and exposure notification technologies. Given the disproportionately negative impact the pandemic has had on communities of color, these innovations can have a disproportionately positive impact on those communities.

In addition, the Health Maker Lab is dedicating its fall student Make-a-Thon competition to addressing racism as a health crisis, with participants submitting disruptive and innovative ideas to help solve long-standing health disparities. The Health Maker Lab continues those efforts through its recent creation of a new Maker Lab Node, Designing Resiliency and Well-being (DRAW), which “will use a culture of innovation to create well-being tools that decrease social determinants of health and health disparities while promoting health equity,” explains Mendenhall.

Another interdisciplinary and democratization effort involves the College’s Innovation Pathway program, where medical students work with a faculty mentor and team to propose independent research projects across disciplines that intersect with medicine. This fall’s call for proposals focused on projects that address health disparities and racism in healthcare.

The genius of the Health Maker Lab and Innovation Pathway initiatives is that they bring many perspectives to the table. That, says Mendenhall, “creates a synergy of knowledge that allows teams to tackle health problems in more innovative and powerful ways.”

The professor of sociology and African American studies continues: “In my own experience with innovation, having diverse voices allows individuals to see their blind spots or areas of less creativity. Diverse ways of knowing produces final products that are often stunning and push the boundaries between what we have and what we need.”

The College’s efforts to bring diverse voices to the table extends to the community’s youngest members as well. Current programs for middle schoolers (STEM Illinois), high school students (SPHERES), and undergraduates (REACH) allow them to the explore the possibilities of a career in medicine and science.

Boppart explains that Carle Illinois is committed to “expanding this pathway continuum to enable the education and development of next-generation physician-innovators from diverse racial, ethnic, and other groups in medicine as they join us in not only addressing the racial disparities in healthcare, but also the disparities in racial demographics of our physicians and leaders in medicine.”

Damo Teniola knows firsthand the impact of these initiatives. In 2019, the University of South Florida student participated in the REACH program, where he “learned about the whole spectrum of healthcare delivery, clinical research, translational research, and medical technology. That kind of exposure is so important for those in underrepresented groups because it shows you the possibilities—possibilities you wouldn’t know about otherwise.”

He explains it this way: “It was a catalytic experience because it made the possibilities real for me. I could see firsthand the work being done and the impact of that work, and it provided mentorship, educating me about the doors that could be opened.”

That’s exactly what these programs are intended to do, says Boppart. So even when the pandemic made it impossible for the summer 2020 programs to continue on campus, they were still a priority. The College pivoted, creating virtual programs for REACH and SPHERES students.

“Instead of five students being on campus for the programs, we had over 500 high school students and undergraduates from around the country join us online,” says Boppart. “By extending the number of underrepresented students we reach and exposing them to the opportunities in medicine, we can encourage their continued exploration and hopefully entrance into medicine. To help address racism and health disparities, it’s important that the demographics of physicians match the demographics of patients.”

Mendenhall agrees and says that starts by ensuring that the path to a career in medicine is visible and clear for students of color and other marginalized groups, and that there is a culture of innovation, access, and affirmation that supports their choices.

“We want to provide ways for future physicians to see what’s possible and to ask themselves: ‘What’s my gift? What’s my genius?’ and then help them take the next steps,” says Mendenhall.

It requires a big commitment and big thinking, she says. “At Carle Illinois, we are committed to deploying the tremendous power of innovative thinking to address the health crisis of racism and to create a diverse and talented community of citizen-community scientists and physician innovators.”