For Carla Ellis, MD, MS, FASCP, discovering pathology was a happy coincidence. She had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and knew she wanted to pursue medicine, but wasn’t completely sure of what path to take. “I had a friend whose dad worked at the coroner’s office in Washington, D.C., and he told me about the field of pathology, and it sounded fascinating,” she says.
As her training progressed, Dr. Ellis realized something else: as much as she loved pathology, aspects of it were isolating. “I was the only person in my medical school class to match in a pathology residency,” she says. “I was also the only underrepresented minority in my graduating medical school class, which further promoted feelings of isolation.”
Today Dr. Ellis’s dream is that the organization she founded last year with ASCP support, the Society of Black Pathologists (SBP), will raise awareness of the pathology subspecialty among medical learners and increase the number of laboratory medicine professionals from underrepresented groups.
Dr. Ellis, now an associate professor of pathology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, calls the current situation facing pathology and laboratory medicine a two-part gap. “First, not enough promising students from groups that are underrepresented in medicine even know about pathology at a stage where they can easily tailor their education and goals. We’ve got to catch them early,” she says. “Second, the percentage of healthcare providers who are people of color is far less than our percentage of the actual population, and that contributes to widespread health disparities and inequities.”
To help bridge this two-part gap, Dr. Ellis and her fellow SBP board members have formulated an ambitious vision, including:
The SBP plans to establish connections with residency programs, medical schools, and laboratory medicine training programs to further support the pathology workforce pipeline in underrepresented communities. “We are also in the process of partnering with other societies to build bridges among groups with shared passion and expertise,” Dr. Ellis says.
“We hope to capture the hearts of our young minds with outreach, but what about our existing junior- to mid-level faculty who also need support and assistance with faculty development, promotion assistance, and networking?” Dr. Ellis says. The SBP plans to tap into the expertise of senior pathologists and laboratory professionals of color to mentor the next generation in partnership with current ASCP offerings.
Exactly what form these outreach and mentorship activities will take is still to be determined. That’s because SBP is more concerned with creating a society with long-term viability than merely checking tasks off a list.
In the meantime, SBP leadership remains intensely mindful of how much ASCP support has pushed them forward. “We would not exist without ASCP’s help,” Dr. Ellis says. “Our partnership means that ASCP provides management and organizational support that are giving us a firm foundation even as we promote our mutual interests in education, diversity, equity and inclusion.”
On advice from ASCP leadership including past president Melissa P. Upton, MD, FASCP, and others, much of SBP’s first year has been devoted to clarifying its mission and developing sound administrative structures and practices. “Now that we’re entering our second year, we’ll be working on definable goals and action items,” Dr. Ellis says. The SBP Founding Board is composed of full-time pathologists and laboratory professionals who volunteer their time to engage in SBP activities. “I’m trying to balance overwhelming our board members with active promotion of our mission.”
Dr. Ellis initially fielded comments from colleagues who felt that their race and majority status might exclude them from membership. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she says, emphasizing that members do not have to be Black and they don’t have to be medical doctors. “How can you exclude anyone from membership when your goal is inclusion?” she says. “We want to include everyone that shares passion about the goals and mission of the SBP.”
To ensure that all laboratory medicine professionals feel included and represented, the SBP has included in their bylaws that an “at large” board position will be designated for a non-physician laboratory professional.
For Dr. Ellis, all the hard work has been worth it. “Every time I think of a young person from a marginalized group who has an interest in science and medicine, but does not have the resources or proper mentorship network to embark on this career path, I know I’d do it all over again, especially with the help of the amazing individuals on the founding board,” she says. “This is the way forward to improve the health of our specialty and the people we serve.”