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March 11, 2020

Diversify GI: Fola May

“… even an individual who wants nothing more but to succeed in research will find success challenging without strong mentorship and sponsorship.”
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We’re celebrating diversity in our field with a new series spotlighting members of the AGA Diversity Committee and AGA FORWARD Program.

The UCLA Women’s Basketball Program recognized AGA FORWARD Scholar Fola May, MD, PhD, MPhil, for exemplifying their values of being “uncommon” and going above and beyond.

You’ll find proof she meets these criteria through extracurriculars like her participation in the AGA FORWARD program — an NIH-funded initiative that supports underrepresented minority physician scientists — and as a GI patient advocate on Capitol Hill.

Dr. May’s unconventional career path is also testament to her ability to color outside the lines while creating a masterpiece.

“Realizing late in my training that I wanted a career in research, I joined the STAR program at UCLA which allowed me to complete a PhD in health policy and management (a health services research degree) during my GI fellowship. With this training, I have been able to pursue a career in research and clinical care far beyond what I ever imagined.”

But she noticed a void along her career path that she couldn’t fill on her own: limited access to diverse research leaders in the field who can serve as her mentors, supporters and advocators.

“Though I have a wonderful mentorship team that has been instrumental to my success thus far, there are currently no senior health services researchers in gastroenterology or gastroenterologists of color at my institution.”

At Dr. May’s institution, there are about 60 faculty members — only one Hispanic female. At the academic health center where Dr. May works, she is the only African American gastroenterologist. Other divisions and departments do not look much different, she explains.

“We serve a massive, diverse urban center. I don’t understand it, and I feel strongly that we can do better.”

She stressed that the key to breaking unjust cultural norms is for white colleagues to acknowledge the issues minorities face and to make intentional efforts to increase diversity in the workforce.

“We can’t expect black and brown faculty to do it on their own. The ‘minority tax’ that we face is a heavy toll and has the potential to paralyze our careers. We need members of the majority populations to also embrace diversity issues.”

  • Let’s get personal
  • What do you know now that you wish someone told you when you started your career? “I wish that someone told me earlier that there will come a time when you will transition from working hard to check off all the check boxes to working hard in the things that make you happy. So much of medical school and residency is about doing what you are told you have to do to succeed. Finally, I feel that I am encouraged to find the research topics and patient populations that I am most passionate about. In dedicating ourselves to the things we care most about we have the best opportunity for real impact.”
  • Who is your professional hero and why? “Wow. Honestly, I do not have one. Maybe Michelle Obama. I know she is not in medicine, but I pick her because she is an African-American women who I know has been put through a lot and has to put up with a lot. But she keeps her head up high and stays strong. Reading her book transformed me. You can’t tell by just looking at her, all that she’s had to deal with. I would like to be seen as someone who is strong despite all of the background noise.”
  • Something you may not know about me is … “I am pretty obsessed with CrossFit and fitness. I really enjoy staying active.”
  • If I weren’t in gastroenterology, I would be … “a television/movie writer or movie producer.”
  • In my free time I like to … “spend time with my husband and kids, travel, stay active.”

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