Admirable and Inspiring

Medical students think deeply about the role of medicine in society and the school’s role in promoting social justice
By Sharon Tregaskis | Portraits by Jörg Meyer

Second-year student Adrian Thompson’25 cast his net wide when he applied to medical school. He had a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry with excellent grades, an MCAT score in the 99th percentile, and two years of research experience developing small molecule tracers to study neural circuitry in larval zebrafish. He filed 25 medical school applications. “I wanted to maximize my options,” says Mr. Thompson.

Throughout his application process, the role of medicine in promoting social justice was at the top of his mind. “Given the events of 2020 and, really, just living as a Black man in America, I see my role in medicine first and foremost to care for people in need. I cannot neglect the health disparities, especially in terms of disparate access to advances like telehealth and the differences in quality of care based on whether a person has public or private health insurance coverage,” says Mr. Thompson. “Even when I was looking into schools, anti-racism and health equity were at the top of my list.”

While researching VP&S, Mr. Thompson was particularly struck by the Equity and Justice Fellowship, launched in 2020 to engage students in developing anti-racist curricula. And he appreciated how current students and faculty talked about the school’s role in Washington Heights. “That was something I would want to embody as a value: in addition to treating patients in the clinic, how you relate to the community around you.” After several months of deliberation, Mr. Thompson chose Columbia’s medical school.  

VP&S prizes a student body that thinks deeply about the role of medicine in society, says Vice Dean for Education Monica Lypson, MD. “We recruit the most thoughtful, inspiring, humanistic students to become physicians with the Columbia moniker.” It should come as no surprise, she notes, that VP&S students aren’t shy with their criticism—or their calls to action. “It is our students who are leading us in ensuring that we stay true to the calling of our profession, which is to take care of all and meet the needs of all, no matter how they come. In that way, I find the work of our students incredibly admirable and inspiring—and quite frankly, they’re right to demand that we do better.”

Consider, for example, the work of VP&S students—including Mr. Thompson—in White Coats for Black Lives (WC4BL), a non-hierarchical, Black student-led organization with chapters at medical schools in Canada, Grenada, and the United States. At Columbia, WC4BL has led campaigns to promote better health care for people affected by the carceral system, revamp the allocation of state funds for safety-net hospitals, extend health coverage for all New Yorkers, and eliminate the de facto segregation of health care based on patients’ insurance status. 

In December 2014, VP&S students participated with thousands of students from 70 medical schools throughout the United States in a silent White Coats for Black Lives die-in as part of an effort to address explicit and implicit discrimination and racism and reflect on systemic biases embedded in medical education curricula, clinical learning environments, and administrative decision-making.

“The challenges that exist for medicine overall are larger than Columbia,” says WC4BL member Cameron Clarke’24, a Rhodes Scholar who came to VP&S by way of a policy and research fellowship with Planned Parenthood and an internship in the office of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. “One of the things that we’ve tried to do as an organization is that while we’re critical and always engaging with Columbia—because we have this affiliation with this medical school—we’re constantly working at levels above and beyond Columbia,” says Mr. Clarke. “We’re working with other medical schools across New York state, with statewide physicians groups, and with city and state officials. We’re constantly engaging at all these different levels to address the disparities we’re seeing.”

Among the priorities for students in the Columbia chapter of WC4BL is support for New York state legislation, including the New York Health Act (, which would provide comprehensive health care for every New Yorker, and the Indigent Care Pool reallocation ( to ensure that tax-funded support reaches poor and uninsured patients at safety net hospitals. “We ask that you use your position as members of this community or as VP&S alumni to reaffirm your support for equitable care,” says WC4BL member and VP&S Class of 2025 President Gabby Wimer. 

Like Mr. Thompson and Mr. Clarke, Ms. Wimer came to medical school with an advocacy mindset, an ethic rooted in her earliest memories. “Most of my family on the Haitian side are doctors or they work in health care, and I grew up hearing about health inequities globally.” As an undergraduate in Chicago and later working in Amman, Jordan, and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, she saw opportunities for systemic change far afield and close to home. 

As part of a group that chose VP&S as the pandemic roiled New York City and underscored the pervasive health effects of systemic racism, Ms. Wimer says she and her classmates share a unique bond. “Starting medical school in the midst of COVID definitely impacts how people understand medicine.” For evidence, she points to her own election as president of the Class of 2025. “When I was running, I was explicit that anti-racism and anti-racism initiatives at Columbia were very important to move medicine forward. I think by voting for me, my classmates endorsed that perspective.”

Julia Iyasere’08 is an assistant professor of medicine at VP&S and executive director of  the Dalio Center for Health Justice at NewYork-Presbyterian. She works regularly with WC4BL members—including Ms. Wimer and Mr. Thompson—in their shared work with the NYC Coalition Against Segregated Care, which also includes representatives from Mount Sinai, NYU, and Weill Cornell. 

“If you’re not thinking about what they’re going through, beyond that injury or illness in that moment, you’re missing so much opportunity to work together to improve people’s lives.”

“Engagement from the student body has always been high at Columbia, whether it was regarding the clinical rotations or awareness of sociopolitical issues and their influence on medicine and medical education,” says Dr. Iyasere, who was active during her medical school years in the Black and Latino Student Organization. “I don’t think the level of engagement by the students has changed over the years—the topics for discourse have evolved, keeping pace with the social and cultural movements of our time.”

Current students credit community members for helping them focus their energies. “Figuring out ways to better integrate with and support the community is a challenge,” says Ms. Wimer, who is mixed race. “I’m a medical student from out of town and I look white—there’s a separation. In WC4BL we talk a lot about how we want to see justice in health care, but we also know that it can be problematic to be the ones representing what we think community interests are without being part of that community.”

The students have been proactive about acclimating to Washington Heights and building institutional knowledge as they campaign for change. They’ve developed shared Google files, instituted peer mentorship, and used videoconferencing to bridge the gaps, whether welcoming geographically distant incoming students or finessing pandemic-imposed quarantines and isolation. Those same strategies compensate for the arc of training, when third-year clinical rotations pull many students away from their social justice pursuits. “It’s a very disjunctive process—it interrupts the continuity and sustainability of the movements,” says Mr. Clarke. 

During her first two years at VP&S, WC4BL member Anna Rose’24 gathered background information for the segregated care campaign, collecting insights from WC4BL alumni, VP&S faculty, administrators of NewYork-Presbyterian’s Ambulatory Care Network, and other stakeholders. The resulting teach-in, Segregated Care 101, laid the groundwork for ongoing conversations with advocates and administrators. “As physicians, we have such a unique privilege in getting to know people at really vulnerable moments and getting real insight into people’s struggles,” says Ms. Rose. “If you’re not thinking about what they’re going through, beyond that injury or illness in that moment, you’re missing so much opportunity to work together to improve people’s lives.” 

While Ms. Rose has eased out of day-to-day involvement with the segregated care campaign during her clinical rotations, Mr. Thompson and his classmates have continued the work. Dr. Lypson considers such handoffs, and the breadth of other activities medical students pursue as they advocate for change, vital professional development opportunities. “We want students to create a professional identity that allows them—when it’s time to look for residency, fellowship, and their future training—to bring their full selves to that process,” she says. “What they’re showing and actively demonstrating is their leadership skills, their ability to create a coalition.”

This year, Mr. Thompson has expanded his involvement in the VP&S recruitment and admissions process—with a focus on increasing representation of medical students who grew up in Washington Heights. As a member of WC4BL, he is working with classmate Jeremiah “JD” Douchee’24 on Just Care and the Justice System, a project with Trudi Cloyd, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine, and Robert Fullilove, EdD, associate dean of community and minority affairs for the Mailman School of Public Health. Together, they are developing a year-long educational curriculum and teach-in for Columbia medical and dental students that covers the unique medical and psychosocial needs of detained, incarcerated, and undocumented patients, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. 

“My role is to take care of the patient in front of me and also to address the illnesses in society, which includes racism,” says Mr. Thompson. “Being a physician places me in a position that can hopefully reduce the impacts of racism and reduce disparities.”