The Robert A. Copeland Jr., MD, Advocacy Education Fund was established in 2018 to honor the late founding chairman of ophthalmology at Howard University, who had a history of engaging members-in-training in advocacy. Fittingly, the fund historically has covered the annual expenses for one resident to attend the Academy’s Mid-Year Forum and Congressional Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C., as an Advocacy Ambassador.
On Selecting the Copeland Fellow
Saras Ramanathan, MD, director of the University of California, San Francisco's residency program made choosing Dr. Rolake Alabi from a number of highly qualified candidates easier by her recommendation.
“Rolake impressed us from the very beginning,” Dr. Ramanathan said. “From her first days as an intern and then resident, she has always been one to assess every situation, perform a deliberate but quick needs analysis and apply her efforts in exactly the appropriate areas to grow and develop as a clinician and surgeon. Her attitude is one of ‘How can I improve my skillset?’ or ‘How can I add value to the care of this patient?’ ”
The Academy, along with the ophthalmology section of the National Medical Association, the largest and oldest national organization representing African American physicians, have selected Rolake Alabi, MD, PhD, as the fourth Copeland Fellow.
Dr. Alabi is a third-year resident at the University of California, San Francisco. After receiving her medical degree from Cornell University 2018, she moved to the Bay Area to forward her career as both a clinician-scientist and patient advocate.
YO Info sat down with her to discuss how family has influenced her young career as well as her plans for addressing adequate access to ophthalmology services in disadvantaged and underserved communities.
You immigrated to the United States in 1996. How did that experience influence your decision to be a physician?
I was born in Nigeria and lived in England before immigrating to New York as a child when my father had the chance to pursue training in a residency program — an opportunity that he just couldn’t pass up. To be honest, at the time, I wasn’t thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was more concerned with how I was going to make new friends at every new school!
What I came to realize later, though, was just how difficult the transition was not just for me and my siblings, but for my mom and dad as well. Residency is already pretty tough, but there’s another level when you have four kids and you’re in a brand new country.
In terms of influencing my own professional arc, being an immigrant often meant finding ways to adapt quickly — whether it be new people, practices or customs. The experience for me has always been about people. Having lived in three continents by the age of 9, I had many opportunities to meet and relate with individuals from a variety of backgrounds. So I naturally gravitated toward a field where I would have the opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life.
By the time I got to college, the combination of 1) having a front-row seat to my father’s life as a practicing physician, 2) having a sibling with special needs and 3) my own discovery of scientific research further solidified my decision to pursue medicine.
'On a more human and really simple level, Timi has taught me the most of anyone I know about what it means to be truly and fully present for every interaction — whether with my family, friends, patients or colleagues.'
How does your brother Timi continue to inspire you as a human being, a sister and a physician?
Having a sibling with autism definitely inspired my initial interest in biomedical research, which in turn solidified my decision to pursue the physician-scientist pathway. On a more human and really simple level, Timi has taught me the most of anyone I know about what it means to be truly and fully present for every interaction — whether with my family, friends, patients or colleagues.
I’ve also learned a lot from watching my parents navigate raising a special needs child. I’m constantly motivated and inspired by the compassion, grace and diligence that my parents have always given Timi’s care. To this day, this informs my approach to patient care. I approach every interaction with the same care that I would want someone else to give my brother.
As a Copeland Fellow, what do you want to bring to the table at this year’s Congressional Advocacy Day?
One aspect of STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] education that I hope to discuss with lawmakers is the need for systematic support of educational outreach programs focused on increasing the representation in the STEM fields so as to reflect the actual diversity of the country’s population. I’ve participated in and worked with STEM pipeline programs since I was a college student and have seen firsthand just how critical their mentoring, funding and networking opportunities are in keeping underrepresented students engaged in and on track for careers in the STEM fields.
These opportunities are important not just for high school and undergraduate students. They also capture the interest of future physicians, scientists and engineers during the formative elementary and middle school years. I hope we can further fortify the STEM pipeline by encouraging academic institutions who receive public funding to establish and/or build on programs designed to support underrepresented students from the very beginning of their educational careers. In the end, I believe we can make these programs a priority by incentivizing their institutional support.
With events going virtual in 2021, Dr. Alabi will participate in Mid-Year Forum sessions on April 23 and 24 covering politics, policy and practice management. In addition, she will join a contingent of California ophthalmologists during Zoom sessions on May 5 with legislators as part of Congressional Advocacy Day. Dr. Alabi will also be recognized during the L.E.A.P. Forward session (leadership, engagement, advocacy, practice management) on May 20 with more than 145 other residents and fellowship trainees participating in the Advocacy Ambassador Program.