Leading as a medical student can pave way for public health career

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

One’s origin story as a leader in medicine can be rooted in medical student experiences. Such is the case with Kristie E. N. Clarke, MD, MSCR, a medical epidemiologist and Commander in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps who serves at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with a focus on health equity.

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Long before she was giving a national press briefing during a once-in-a-century pandemic and responding to Ebola and Marburg virus outbreaks in remote nations, Cmdr. Clarke was a member of the AMA Medical Student Section (AMA-MSS) who was looking for a way to make her mark in medicine.

Dr. Clarke drew from her experiences as a medical student leader to offer tips to the next generation of physicians on how they can make an impact during an AMA-MSS education session at the 2023 AMA Annual Meeting and in an interview. Here are a few key takeaways.

Dr. Clarke’s most formative experiences as a leader were during her time as a student at the Medical University of South Carolina. She volunteered at a Head Start program serving pre-schoolers whose families were migrant farmworkers in the Charleston area as a first-year medical student. The program served primarily children from Latin American countries.  

“I went to speak with people who have worked for a long time in the community and spoke to members of the community to see really what was needed,” Dr. Clarke said. “One of the things that they mentioned was that many times people don't travel with their own sheets or towels or they may get misplaced along the way. It's a frequent need that they were unable to meet. So, I organized a campus-wide linen drive that I’m told was held for at least the next 10 years.”

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She added that an essential element to any public health project “is not to assume that you know what a community needs, but that you're able to communicate, engage, listen to them, and, you know, incorporate their perspective from lived experience into the goals of the project.”

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Working with the local migrant community raised Dr. Clarke’s awareness of international health issues. Her first leadership position with the AMA was as chair of an AMA-MSS committee on global health.

This involved “looking at the bigger picture—the population-level picture— trying to make the largest impact that I can has always been really important to me,” Dr. Clarke said. “That made organized medicine and the medical student section of the AMA really attractive to me.”

From her service as committee chair, Dr. Clarke—an AMA member and an HOD Delegate for the Public Health Service delegation—went on to be elected Speaker on the AMA-MSS Governing Council, which plans the section’s meetings and sets the section’s advocacy priorities.

“Having leadership experiences with the AMA, which is a large organization, and needing to organize an event on such a large scale while balancing the priorities of many stakeholders and setting boundaries, those were all experiences to prepare me for future leadership roles outside of the AMA,” Dr. Clarke said.

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Medical students are fairly scheduled, and adding one more activity or experience can often be cumbersome. Dr. Clarke found inspiration by seeing the impact of her work on a small scale, such as the linen drive, or a larger scale through the AMA.

“If you're doing something that is really important to you and that you feel can make a larger difference, that can be a source of energy,” Dr. Clarke said. “If you are confronting less inspiring tasks, but know that you have these other projects that speak to your unique passions and values, that can be really motivating for med students. A lot of times in med school what you're doing is pretty standardized.”