Life-Long Dream Comes True for Medical Student

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-sponsored summer program is helping to increase ranks of minority doctors.

    • May 23, 2012

“Generally, when people are healthy, they’re happier. Who doesn’t want to be happier?”

Carmen Young, MD, offers this reflection as an affirmation more than as a question. The 26-year-old University of Louisville, School of Medicine student graduates this month and will soon begin her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at St. Mary’s Hospital in St. Louis.

Since 8th grade, Young has positioned herself for a medical career. She has an abiding commitment to preconception health and says she wants to improve birth outcomes for Black and low-income women.

Young is among eight University of Louisville graduates who received support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP). Four each from the school of medicine and the school of dentistry, they were among SMDEP’s first University of Louisville class. Each year, the program brings 80 college freshmen and sophomores to the Louisville campus for an intensive six-week summer program designed to build skills in math and science, and provide students with mentoring and life skills to help them succeed in fields in which minorities are underrepresented.

With 12 sites across the country, SMDEP is one of the Foundation’s signature health workforce training programs. Since 1988, it has helped prepare more than 20,000 students from disadvantaged backgrounds, rural communities, and medically underserved populations for careers in medicine, dentistry, and other health-related professions.

Young, who will be the first “MD” in her family, participated in the 2006 SMDEP class. She called the experience a “jumpstart” that transformed her dream into a destination.

Medical schools receive proportionately fewer applications from Black and Hispanic students than from White students. Those from underrepresented communities may not have sufficient financial resources and may be uncertain about how to prepare for medical careers. That is where SMDEP steps in to fill gaps, opening doors for students who might not otherwise be able to pursue these careers while also increasing diversity in the health care workforce.

“Diverse perspectives reflected in our dental and medical professions are necessary for a better patient experience,” explains Norma Poll-Hunter, PhD, co-deputy director for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). “SMDEP is about bringing talent that’s not traditionally represented in our medical and dental school applicant pools. This could mean the White male from a rural community or the Native American student who needs pre-health advising to understand the medical school application process.”

The rigorous experience of taking three to four courses during the six-week SMDEP program helped prepare Young to succeed in medical school. The ability to shadow other health professionals and a bridge to a powerful network of mentors and peers also gave her and her SMDEP classmates insight into what a medical career is like. “You have the ability to succeed because people are there to assist you. You don’t have to do it by yourself,” Young said about the support the SMDEP program provided.

Young’s goal is to help improve outcomes for Black mothers and their babies. Infant mortality rates among Black women are more than two times greater than among Whites. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black women also suffer higher rates of pre-term deliveries (infants born too soon or too small) than women from other racial and ethnic groups. In 2007, pre-term-related mortality rates were 3.4 times higher for infants of non-Hispanic Black mothers (5.99 per 1,000 live births) than for non-Hispanic White mothers (1.78).

This Black-White gap persists for a variety of socioeconomic reasons, including education and income levels, access to quality health care, and lifestyle and diet. Research also suggests that race is a stronger predictor of pre-term births than socioeconomic status. Chronic stress experienced by the women over time can contribute to preconception diabetes, hypertension, and depression for Black women, experts say.


The Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) is a free (full tuition, housing, and meals) six-week summer academic enrichment program that offers freshman and sophomore college students intensive and personalized medical and dental school preparation. SMDEP helps college students from underrepresented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in medical or dental school. With 12 university sites, SMDEP is a national program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with direction and technical assistance provided by the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Dental Education Association. SMDEP will begin accepting applications for its 2013 class on November 1 through its website, www.smdep.org.