Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) student Nadine Michel is helping ensure that the University of Virginia’s past is more completely known and serves to educate us and inform our decisions for a better future, by creating the interactive timeline, “UVA History: From a Black Perspective”.
Michel recently shared with us more about herself and her education, research, and the timeline.
Tell us about yourself.
My parents are immigrants from Haiti. They came to the United States on student visas in their 20s. When they finished school and their visas ended, they moved to Canada because Haiti was politically unstable at the time. I was born in Montreal and we moved to Maryland when I was 6 years old. I grew up and lived mostly in Columbia, Maryland, and went to college at Duke where I studied neuroscience and had a minor in music, playing jazz piano. I started college as a pre-med interested in psychology, but I changed to neuroscience as my interest in research, neurobiology, and mental health grew.
In 2010, there was an earthquake in Haiti. That summer, Duke sent students to work with various nonprofit organizations. I wanted to help, so I went. It was an incredible summer — a hard summer, but incredible. That’s when I started getting interested in research. I was wondering why certain people who experienced trauma from the earthquake developed depression and PTSD while others were resilient and did not develop psychiatric disorders. We met with people who were living in tent cities and we screened them for post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. Our surveys were the early-stage foundational work in obtaining grants to build a psychiatric hospital near the epicenter of the earthquake.
That experience led to me joining a neuroscience lab studying social stress in a mouse model. My mentor in that lab was Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, an MD-PhD in psychiatry, and he recommended that I consider MD/PhD programs. Seeing a black physician scientist in psychiatry inspired me to apply to MSTP programs and I ended up here at UVA.
Tell us about your research.
I arrived in Charlottesville in 2014. I did two years of medical school and then four years of research for my PhD in neuroscience. In my project I was trying to understand the mechanisms of DNA double-strand breaks in neural cells during early brain development. Using induced pluripotent stem-cell technology, you can take a skin cell sample from a patient and turn it back into a stem cell. Then you can turn that stem cell into a neuron. I was basically turning stem cells into neurons, examining how they develop, and analyzing how their DNA can get damaged or altered during that process. A significant level of DNA damage during early neurodevelopment is associated with psychiatric diseases such as autism and schizophrenia. I defended my dissertation research in the spring of 2020.
You recently created an interactive timeline entitled “UVA History: From a Black Perspective”. How and why was that created?
This was a project I created after taking a black physicians history class. I defended my PhD in March 2020 and then COVID happened and everything started locking down. I was supposed to go right back into med school, but we were furloughed while the school figured out safety precautions. However, we could still take our humanities classes online, so I signed up for this black physicians history class. We learned a lot about the history of UVA and eugenics and … just all of the history here. I kind of knew some pieces of our history, because I’d been here for so long and had spoken with people in the community.
I was also here in August 2017 and witnessed the Unit the Right rally. At the time, I heard dialogue like “this is a random event that happened” and “people came here from out of state to do this.” I felt that maybe that wasn’t the whole truth. After speaking with more people and digging into the history, I realized that white supremacy has been a part of the history of Charlottesville and UVA since the founding of the university. Taking that black physicians history class kind of put everything together in my mind. From there, I was wondering how many other students don’t know about this history. Also, I was wondering about the students who were going to be coming to UVA, who may be concerned if the institution was addressing these issues. After taking that history class, I took a medical education class that required us to create an educational tool. Most people created something related to disease or medicine. For me, however, all of this history was fresh in my head. I thought, “Now’s the time to start putting it together in a way that’s accessible to people.”
I had the idea to create the timeline because I thought that if someone can visually see the different themes in history, it can help put events into perspective. In creating it, I read a lot of history books. I talked to professors and faculty who have done historical research at UVA related to the President’s Commission on Slavery and the Commission on the University in the Era of Segregation. I spoke with them about their findings and asked if they would review the timeline and provide feedback. For about two months, I just plowed through it. In getting feedback, someone said it was a helpful tool and suggested I bring it to the medical school’s curriculum committee. I talked to the person in charge of Social Issues in Medicine and she thought it was great. As an addition to the timeline, she wanted me to record a video talking to first-year medical students about why I made the timeline and what I would want them to know as new students coming into Charlottesville.
You mentioned the Unite the Right Rally in August 2017. How did that impact you?
I had to do some soul searching after that event. I kept thinking, “What am I doing here?” But, ultimately it made me dig in and get even more involved in what the University was doing. I figured, “I’m here. I’m going to finish my education here. I might as well be involved in the conversations that are happening regarding race, diversity, and equity.” I wanted to make sure that the next generation and anyone who we’re recruiting knows that we’re discussing these topics in the right way, and that people are being represented. It was a tragic incident but I think it’s led to a lot of necessary conversations about systemic racism. Hopefully it will lead to sustainable change, not just at UVA but in other institutions with similar histories.
Have you received any feedback on the timeline? Is it being used?
Yes. It’s been used this year for the new incoming med school class. Some physicians have told me that it’s been a great tool and they’re really happy with it. Dr. Janet Cross reached out to me and wanted to use it for the graduate students, too. I’ve also heard from a clerkship director who wants to use it as a learning tool for their residents. More people are seeing it, which is great. The whole point was to make a tool that would be helpful across the board for everyone.
I think students and faculty are using it to get a big-picture view of UVA. For new people coming to Charlottesville, it helps them orient themselves to the city and provides a quick history. One of the things I wanted to do with the timeline — because there has already been so much work done at UVA by historians and professors — was to make that work easily accessible. If someone finds a particular topic interesting, they can then click through to the relevant articles. It’s all in one spot.
The professor of the black physicians history course is Dr. Preston Reynolds. She’s written several books about the history of UVA and teaches classes throughout the year. I’m going to be working with her on optimizing the CHAAMP Resources website, which goes through the history of African American physicians, scientists, and nurses who have contributed in different ways to modern medicine. [CHAAMP stands for Consortium on the History of African Americans in the Medical Professions.] We’re excited to restructure that website. We’re also hoping to get oral histories from people living in Charlottesville. We want to hear about their experiences during the era that UVA was segregated as a hospital and black patients were treated in the basement. We’ll be getting more voices from the community involved. I’m excited about that work.
In the medical school, we have a program called the Patient Student Partnership. I’m partnered with an older African American woman in Charlottesville and she is amazing. We clicked as soon as we met. I go over to her house on Sundays and we eat and talk about a bunch of random things. She’s lived in Charlottesville for a long time. She remembers when the Ku Klux Klan would be burning crosses on Ridge St. and in people’s backyards to scare them. She’s seen everything. Her family members — some of them wanted to be nurses, but they couldn’t go to UVA because they wouldn’t be accepted. They got sent away to other schools and then returned to serve their communities. My patient was a catalyst for me on this work. As students, we talk and read about these historical events and learn about them as history, but she’s lived it.
What has been your favorite part of your physician-scientist training?
All my experiences drive me to be engaged in the community. It works in a feedback loop. I get excited talking to people in the community. And then I feel motivated to make sure that I’m a really good physician, so I want to study and work hard. Then, at the same time, I’m hearing what the community is going through and it makes me think, “What are the questions we can ask in research? What are ways that we can represent different marginalized patient populations in the way we do science? How do I get information back out to the community?” It keeps going in a circle. One part reinforces the other.
One of the cool things about getting my PhD is that it was not just about learning certain knowledge and science, but it was also about getting critical-thinking skills and becoming good at problem solving. I feel like that’s allowed me to look at a lot of problems, not just scientific ones, but also social and structural problems as well. I often think, “How do we solve problems in the community?” I think my experience has made me a little bolder. “I have an idea. Let’s see if someone will give me funding.” I’m willing to go out there and try different things. If I have an idea, I go after it. That has come from the training that I’ve had in this program.
You’re near the end of medical school and will be graduating in 2022. Where do you want to go from here?
I’m applying into psychiatry in just a few weeks! I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I’m applying pretty broadly since I have diverse interests at this point. I definitely want to keep doing investigative research on the mechanisms of psychiatric disease but I have also developed a passion for public psychiatry and working with patient populations that have limited access to care. As a Haitian American woman, I definitely see myself working with Haitian patients in some capacity in the future.
Anyone you’d like to thank?
I have to start with my mom and dad. As immigrants their mindset has always been to work extremely hard on whatever you’re passionate about and serve your community along the way. Next is Dr. Preston Reynolds. I’m grateful to her for teaching that course. I am constantly calling and emailing her with ideas and saying, “I want to try something.” She’s always told me to go for it. She’s been so supportive. I want to thank administrators in the MSTP. Assistant Director Ashley Woodard and the director, Dr. Dean Kedes, have always been supportive of my work and other students’ efforts to improve diversity and equity in our program. Honestly, there are so many more people I can thank at UVA and in the community that have been instrumental to me developing as a physician scientist and individual, so I’ll just say that I’m really thankful for the community of people that I have here. Everyone is so willing to be engaged, collaborate, and support each other on different projects. This has been an empowering and fun place to learn which has made it an awesome experience.