Longtime Advocate for Women in Medicine Leads Diversity Effort at Weill Cornell

Greg Merhar

Debra Leonard, a molecular pathologist, is Weill Cornell Medical College's first chief diversity officer.
December 06, 2009

Debra Leonard could paint her medical career with two broad strokes.

Weill Cornell Medical College's first chief diversity officer is both a molecular pathologist and a longtime advocate for women in medicine. This past summer she became director of the college's new Office of Faculty Diversity in Medicine and Science.

The office's goal is "to change the Weill Cornell environment to a diverse and inclusive community, so all people feel welcomed, accepted, and part of the team," says Dr. Leonard, who is 54.

Differences in the demographic characteristics of American physicians and their patients can cause misunderstandings that result in a lower standard of care, she says. "If you don't understand that the cultural background of your patients influences how they cooperate with and respond to treatment, then you won't be able to treat them as effectively."

To train doctors from diverse nationalities, races, religions, ages, and sexual orientations, medical-school faculties must themselves model diversity, she believes. And they still have a long way to go.

About two-thirds of the country's medical faculty members are male, and almost 70 percent of them are non-Hispanic and white, the Association of American Medical Colleges found in 2007. African-American and Hispanic professors made up just 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively, of the American medical faculty. And women on medical faculties are far less likely than men to reach the ranks of associate or full professor.

Dr. Leonard's first challenge is to better train a diverse student body by recruiting professors from more-varied backgrounds.

Carla Boutin-Foster, the office's director of diversity, says each of the office's three directors contributes her own expertise in pursuit of that goal, and Dr. Leonard's expertise lies in developing leaders from underrepresented populations, especially women.

Last fall, Dr. Leonard harnessed what Dr. Boutin-Foster calls her "direct dedication and passion" to push for her beliefs. Separately, the two women approached David P. Hajjar, dean of the graduate school and executive vice provost of the medical school, about the need for a program focused on faculty diversity. Rache M. Simmons, now the office's director of women in medicine and science, proposed a similar idea to Antonio M. Gotto Jr., dean of the medical school.

The perspectives of each professor strengthened their collective argument for establishing a diversity office, Dr. Boutin-Foster said. After hearing from the women, Mr. Hajjar convened a committee to generate suggestions, and less than a year later, with Dr. Gotto's backing, the Office of Faculty Diversity in Medicine and Science was created.

Dr. Leonard was a natural choice to direct it, Mr. Hajjar says, thanks to her leadership of a mentorship program for women pursuing combined doctoral and medical degrees while she taught at the University of Pennsylvania. But Mr. Hajjar wanted more than just mentors for junior female professors at Weill Cornell. He wanted a formalized structure for recruiting and supporting women, and faculty members from distinct backgrounds.

As chief diversity officer, Dr. Leonard would like all faculty members to be happy to work at the college. Through faculty surveys, town-hall meetings, and seminars, she hopes to foster a "diverse, inclusive, and equitable" environment to ensure faculty retention.

Though she knows she may face some opposition in confronting the problems her efforts identify, Dr. Leonard is no stranger to an uphill battle. Her first applications to medical schools were met with rejection—something she calls "the first major failure of my life." She was admitted five years later to the New York University School of Medicine, where she specialized in molecular pathology. Dr. Leonard started in that field in 1992 and has watched as it evolved from identifying pathogens and researching genetic diseases through DNA and RNA to using what she calls "CSI-style methods" to learn about cancers and transplants.

Between the end of her undergraduate education and the beginning of medical school, Dr. Leonard studied the inner ear in auditory-physiology laboratories and completed one year of a bachelor of science program in nursing. After medical school, she moved from New York to the University of Pennsylvania, where she was tapped to run the mentorship program for female students. She guided the women along the narrow career paths open to minorities in the medical profession at the time.

"The focus of my career for the last 12 years has been … to make it a better world for those coming behind me," Dr. Leonard says.

Abby Brownback is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park.