Massachusetts Medical Society: Member Making a Difference - November-December 2020

Member Making a Difference - November-December 2020

LaShyra Nolen

LaShyra Nole
Medical student LaShyra Nolen is an activist, writer, and the president of her Harvard Medical School class.

LaShyra Nolen has packed a lot into her first 15 months as a medical student. Elected president of her Harvard Medical School (HMS) Class of 2023, which by Harvard tradition also meant she presided over the Student Council as a first-year student, Nolen became the first Black woman on record to hold the position.

Entering medical school with a passion for social justice and racial equity, Nolen has led student efforts to build bridges between HMS and nearby residents. And she petitioned successfully, with others, to rename an academic society initially named for an HMS dean known for racist views.

Nolen also has written extensively. In recent months, her essays advocating reforms in medical education have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine and The Boston Globe; her suggestions for dismantling of racism in academic medicine appeared in a Johns Hopkins–affiliated blog.

Here, Nolen (known by many as “Lash”) discusses her motivation and the relationship she sees between social justice and medicine.

VS: What are the roots of your activism?

Nolen: I was born in Compton and spent my childhood in Los Angeles, and in my community I saw a lot of struggle due to systemic inequity. I was raised by a single mother who valued education deeply and has always been driven to serve our community. That informed my reason for going into medicine. Then at Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit school, our college education included an emphasis on social justice — learning how to be a person with and for others. Afterward, I spent a year each in Spain on a Fulbright Fellowship and in Chicago doing a year of service with the AmeriCorps. The confluence of these experiences heightened my passion for social justice coming into medical school.

VS: Tell us about one of your first activities as HMS class president, the 2019 Fall Festival.

Nolen: Part of my platform was increasing HMS’s involvement with our local community. The idea was “how can we engage more with our community and invite them in and help them understand that this place belongs to you as well?”

We asked ourselves whether we might be able to intentionally use our Student Council budget to bring young students from nearby onto campus, instead of the usual med student Halloween party. HMS already had a block party to welcome us. We asked, “Why use these funds to celebrate ourselves again when we could help some youth who are right down the street have a good time and learn what we’re all about?” I partnered with our Office for Diversity Inclusion & Community Partnership and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) student council. We brought about 30 kids from Mission Hill Grammar School onto campus, played games, linked each one with a mentor, and talked about careers in medicine and dentistry.

VS: Can you describe the controversy over the Holmes Society?

Nolen: Starting in the 1980s, HMS classes were divided into small “societies” for a more interactive learning environment. One of these was named after Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a former HMS dean [1846–1853] who expelled the first Black students to be admitted, succumbing to pressure from White students. Holmes also supported eugenics and held very problematic views toward Native Americans and Black people.

Over the years, ongoing conversations questioned why students were being placed into a society named for someone who might not have supported them being here. This year, considering how people were really engaging with antiracist practices and teachings, I said, “Why not strike now and make this change?”

Jalen Benson, president of the HMS chapter of the Student National Medical Association, and I created a petition that was signed by more than 1,000 students, alumni, and workers at HMS and HSDM. The schools put together a committee and in September announced that the Holmes Society would be renamed the Hinton Society, in honor of Dr. [William Augustus] Hinton,* Harvard’s first Black full professor.

It was exciting to see a petition turn into something fruitful. In advocacy work, you don’t always see wins. But at HMS, there was a lot of support around this change. You always wonder, why did it take so long? But I’m just happy that this is the direction that HMS is moving in.

VS: How do you find time to fit advocacy, activism, and writing into the work of being a medical student?

Nolen: I see what I’ve been doing as an extension of the care I hope to provide my patients, and part of the work that needs to be done to care for my patients beyond their clinic visits.

Most students, while really focused on medical school and training, have extracurricular activities. For me, it’s been actively engaging with social justice and trying to find my voice as a way to amplify the voices of communities that are usually unheard.

VS: How did you get involved in the Massachusetts Medical Society?

Nolen: I first heard about the MMS during a student fair. Students at the MMS table told me how much of an impact you’re able to have through the Society, which has a voice in promoting different policy concerns and making a difference here in Massachusetts. I thought it’d be a great way for me to learn more about legislative bodies and how physicians are able to make an impact on [health] policy.

My first involvement with the MMS was the history essay competition. I wrote about Onesimus, the enslaved man who taught Cotton Mather about inoculation and saved Boston from a lot of deaths and heartache during the smallpox epidemic of 1721. When I saw an opportunity to get involved with the Minority Affairs Section, I did. Then Dr. Rosman asked me to participate in the Antiracism Advisory Group. It’s been a domino effect. I’m happy to be part of a body of people who come together and move the profession and our community in the right direction.

VS: Do you have any thoughts for a future career direction?

Nolen: I’ve been through only two rotations so far, so I change my mind often — it’s all so interesting. I’m also definitely interested in pursuing a master’s in public policy. I have this hunger to understand systems and how policy and law determine my patients’ experience outside of the clinic. Down the line, I see myself serving in some type of public service role.

VS: Do you think today’s medical students are different from their predecessors in terms of community engagement?

Nolen: Where medical school in the past was all about biomedical science, now we have courses in public health and are talking about social determinants of health. Racism is no longer a taboo word in medical settings — it’s something that we explicitly name. The more that these conversations become integrated parts of our curriculum — and no longer conversations that people can opt out of — we’ll graduate physicians who understand patients beyond pathology and that there is a connection to community and we are a part of that community. Because our education has changed, students now don’t feel as much pressure to separate those interests from being medical students. Now you can be an activist and a medical student, and it’s actually something that our institutions support.

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