Terms like “role model,” “example,” and “mentor” are affixed to almost anyone these days. But Ottawa’s own Patricia Burhunduli truly restores value to those designations. The Ottawa South native of Rwandan and Congolese descent was the first Black MD/PhD student at Ottawa University. There, she became a self-appointed voice for racial inequalities, eventually becoming Vice President of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for the Faculty of Medicine’s Aesculapian Society. Now, she has launched Medicine in Colour, a platform devoted to the celebration of Black achievement in the Ottawa medical community.
Patricia, tell us about your upbringing…
I had a great upbringing! I was always encouraged by my family. My parents used to motivate me, giving me $5 per A on my report card! Although they’ve stopped giving me those $5 bills, that love of learning has never left.
You were the first black MD/PhD student at uOttawa, a grueling 7-year medical school-doctoral studies combination that only accepts 4 students a year. Talk about that experience…
I am proud of my accomplishments and honoured to be in this academic position. When I learned I was the first Black MD/PhD student in the nation’s capital, it propelled me to do more for my community by empowering minority youth through my status as a role model. I truly believe in the power of representation; I believe in the saying, “You have to see it to be it”. Having direct contact with someone with whom you share similarities (upbringing, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, religion, etc.) can help encourage and inspire them to achieve goals they’ve been led to believe are unattainable. Plus, diversity within medicine leads to better health outcomes for patients. It’s important to encourage people from all walks of life to pursue medicine in order to serve our multicultural population.
What would you consider the key achievements of your career so far?
Admission into the MD/PhD program; numerous scholarships & awards, including the highly competitive CIHR-Doctoral Scholarship; launching the EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) Peer Support Program at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine, and of course, founding Medicine in Colour.
What was the impetus behind Medicine in Colour?
Medicine in Colour is all about representation. Topics surrounding race in medicine often involve the prevalent hardships: systemic racism, discrimination, injustice…the list goes on. I wanted a platform to highlight the accomplishments, awards, and groundbreaking research being performed by our BIPOC community. More importantly, I wanted a platform to inspire underrepresented groups interested in research and medicine, to show them that they, too, can attain these goals with our support.
Did you recognize a gap in Ottawa’s social fabric that was going unattended?
Yes. Regarding medicine, we have amazing medical leaders! Some were at the forefront, saving lives during the pandemic. Some worked with politicians and lawyers to provide opportunities for minorities: surgeons, radiologists, world-renowned researchers, etc. There is so much amazing work being done—but the only ones that know about it are those in the medical field.
What does Medicine in Colour offer?
The purpose of this page is, 1) to inspire underrepresented groups interested in pursuing a career in medicine or research, 2) to showcase the amazing work and accomplishments of BIPOC medical students, researchers, and physicians, and 3) to foster a community of inclusion and celebration among the BIPOC community. We have a lot to be proud of here in Ottawa. Let’s show it off!
What has been the response so far?
Great! I constantly receive messages from high school and undergraduate students seeking support to apply to medical school, looking for tips on the MCAT, searching for networking opportunities, etc. For example, I have students tell me that they have never met a South Asian female medical student or a Black or Indigenous physician. One student told me they never considered applying to medicine prior to connecting with a Black physician; now, they’re starting medical school in September. We have inspired many and will continue to do so!
Back to you: When you’re not busy serving the community, what are some of your other interests?
I love spending my days off at coffee shops. It revives my spirits. Also, travel – even if I only have 1-3 days. Sometimes, I’ll book a quick trip somewhere to take a break.
What’s next on the professional and personal horizon?
Research-wise, I’m currently working on my PhD, studying depression and suicide using neuroimaging techniques. I should graduate within two years. Then I’ll go back and complete my last two years of medical school. As for Medicine in Colour, the current goal is to expand the team, allowing us to get in touch with more students, physicians, and researchers. I’ve also founded and launched a new initiative called the EDI Peer Support Program (edipeersupport.com). It’s a program matching up medical students based on lived experience. For example, if a student fails an exam, often they will suffer in silence and not share that with anyone. This allows students to be matched with those having a similar experience. We know that medical school is difficult, and our Type A personalities often make it hard to show weakness. This program breaks those barriers. We believe it will help prevent symptoms like burnout, anxiety, even depression and suicidal thoughts.
Last, what’s the best advice anyone has ever given you or that you can impart to others?
When you have big dreams, protect them. Even when you don’t think you can do something, try anyway. You’ll surprise yourself.