Interview with the Dean: Fostering Faculty Diversity
Hi, I'm Dr. Laurie Glimcher, dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, and today I am speaking with Dr. Carla Boutin-Foster, an internist who specializes in obesity, hypertension and diabetes and a researcher who focuses on health disparities. Dr. Boutin-Foster was just appointed assistant dean for faculty diversity and will lead our initiative to enhance the multicultural and multiethnic presence at Weill Cornell.
LAURIE H. GLIMCHER: It's great to speak with you, Carla.
CARLA BOUTIN-FOSTER: Thank you for having me.
GLIMCHER: Tell me why recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty is so important to Weill Cornell.
BOUTIN-FOSTER: Weill Cornell is a premiere medical academic center in New York City and we have a tremendous opportunity to become a leading research enterprise. The population is changing, so we need diverse faculty who can lend these experiences, their beliefs, their perspectives to caring for patients, to informing research and also to mentoring. You know, we have a very diverse student body, so we need a faculty that mirrors that.
GLIMCHER: What initiatives is the Office [of] Faculty Diversity pursuing to promote a retaining and recruiting a faculty that is more representative?
BOUTIN-FOSTER: In terms of looking at, specifically, racial and ethnic minorities, we're doing a couple of programs. One is a SPARC program, Successful and Productive Academic Research Careers. This was an initiative that was started to bring together the resources of Weill Cornell, Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Rockefeller University because we are all struggling with the same challenges when it comes to faculty diversity. Last year was the first inaugural event — more racial and ethnic minority researchers, junior faculty interested in research, as well as women, to come together to network, and then we had a second annual event this year. Actually, this evening, we're having what we call Junior SPARC, and it's bringing together high school students and undergraduate students that are involved in all three of the pipeline programs — to come together to learn about mentorship, networking. And our goal is to also increase diversity in biomedical research.
GLIMCHER: Congratulations on receiving the inaugural SPARC Mentoring Excellence Award.
BOUTIN-FOSTER: Receiving the inaugural mentorship award was a surprise to me. They also got letters from students that I never even considered them as students I had mentored, just students I would speak to in passing, or students who worked with me on a research project. They thought of me as a mentor, and that was really humbling. And it really made me believe that the things that we do, they do make a difference.
GLIMCHER: Well deserved. You seem to embrace this idea of diversity in all of your practices, including your research, which focuses on health disparities. Tell me a little bit about what you've been working on lately.
BOUTIN-FOSTER: Well, we have a Center of Excellence in Disparities Research. We support several research projects. It's critically important to get a group of stakeholders together as you present the research idea.
The other thing that we've learned is the importance of addressing social determinants of health in the context of doing research, and that's so important for recruitment and retention. It's hard to have a patient come back for a follow-up visit if it means that they are going to pay another subway fare, so we started giving MetroCards as part of our study. So we have to engage them and we have to recognize that someone may still need to buy food and may still need transportation to come to and from the practice.
The other thing that's important, of course, is a diverse faculty who can lend their perspectives and ideas to doing research.
GLIMCHER: Ending health disparities is an area that is truly challenging. What have you found in your research that might help us break down those barriers?
BOUTIN-FOSTER: My research is predominantly social and behavioral science, advocacy and policy, but [also] the importance of understanding what are some extreme factors, some of the genetic factors that may have an interaction with the environment in which people live [that] contribute to sustaining disparities. Just addressing disparities at the patient level is not going to work. We need a community level, we need policy. My vision is to really connect basic science and some of the behavioral and environmental research that we do to really have a comprehensive view of disparities: How does it begin, and how do we stop it from spreading. So, it's huge. [Glimcher and Boutin-Foster laugh]
GLIMCHER: I'm always intrigued to hear how people decided to become a doctor. Why did you become a doctor?
BOUTIN-FOSTER: My best friend and I decided to become doctors because we went to a high school in Jamaica, Queens, and we realized that there were girls in our first-year class who were coming in as freshmen pregnant. These were our friends, we're not quite sure what circumstances in which they lived that led to that, but we wanted to help. She's now a family practitioner and I'm an internist.
GLIMCHER: Well, you're certainly a decorated clinician. You're a researcher. You're a mentor, and now you're an assistant dean. How do you think you've achieved this level of success?
BOUTIN-FOSTER: My faith and my family really help me to stay grounded, and they keep me humble. I tell my children that — I said, 'Guess what, kids? I'm an assistant dean.' And they are like, 'Oh, great. What's for dinner?' [Glimcher and Boutin-Foster laugh] So my family helps me to keep it real.
GLIMCHER: What advice do you give to young people who want to move ahead in their careers?
BOUTIN-FOSTER: Ooh, networking. Andy Schafer, when he first came on board and I met with him — it was around the time when I was trying to be promoted — and he said, 'You need to network.' And I said, 'Well, you know, how do you do that? How do you just meet people?' And he said, 'You go up to them. People like to hear that you are interested in their work.' Networking is critically important, especially now with the way with NIH [National Institutes of Health] research is. They are no longer funding individual large-scale projects. They are looking for collaboration to break down that research silo.
GLIMCHER: This has been really informative, Carla. Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and I'm very grateful for all your efforts promoting diversity at Weill Cornell and in the community beyond.
BOUTIN-FOSTER: Well, thank you very much for having me.