Aria Small embraces REACH-HBMC as both multidirectional learning experience and impressive mosaic

“Best believe that when we done, this moment will be syndicated.” — Nicki Minaj, Moment 4 Life

December 5 - By Aria Small

In Nicki Minaj’s 2010 hit, “Moment 4 Life”, she eloquently raps “No, I’m not lucky, I’m blessed, yes.” Every time I sing it, I always wonder why Nicki implies that luck is negative and why she perceives “lucky” and “blessed” as mutually exclusive. I’d describe being blessed as similar to fate: blessings are the positive things in your life that were destined to fall into place. Luck is more akin to happy accidents: things that weren’t necessarily supposed to happen but that turned out positively in the end. In my mind, these two things can occur in tandem. I’d challenge Ms. Minaj and say that a person can be both lucky and blessed, but maybe that’s just me.

Personally, I’d describe my life journey as a mosaic of fate and happy accidents. Each seemingly meaningless decision resembles an integral pebble or piece of glass constructing the art piece of my life. Luck and blessings merging harmoniously to create something beautiful. A naively ambitious girl from Barbados wasn’t supposed to end up at Stanford University. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen without a bit of luck and blessings working symbiotically.

The Racial Equity to Advance a Community of Health (REACH) Initiative comprises six important, intentional programs. Each REACH program collaboratively empowers current and future doctors to push the needle on health equity. One of these programs — the REACH-HBMC Summer Research Program — partners with all four of our nation’s Historically Black Medical Colleges (HBMCs) to accomplish this. Having the opportunity to work with the Stanford-REACH-HBMC Program has been one of the most fateful events and happiest accidents of my life. A year ago, I never imagined I’d be working as a program administrator in academic medicine. Yet, there I was, in late September 2023, independently representing Stanford Medicine at the Meharry Research Fair in Nashville, Tennessee. I not only attended as a spectator, but also hosted an information session about the Stanford-REACH-HBMC Program for potential Summer 2024 candidates on my own (or so I thought initially).

Aria Small (left) and REACH-HBMC leadership Sonoo Thadaney Israni and Terrance Mayes

With the little medical knowledge I have, I try to relate to life as a first-year medical student   balancing a jam-packed basic science curriculum, volunteering time at a clinic, setting aside time to conduct research, cultivating relationships, practicing self-care, maintaining a social life — just typing this list is exhausting. As my manager Sonoo Thadaney Israni would say: “They’re juggling, but aren’t we all?,” and I have the utmost respect for the graceful juggling act they perform daily.

I arrived at the Meharry Research Fair anxious about my first public speaking assignment representing Stanford Medicine. I assumed that I would spend the day sitting at my advertisement table nervously anticipating the information session I was hosting that evening. I was so wrong…

The positive energy at the Meharry Research Fair was contagious. First-year medical students were enthusiastically learning from their peers and experts in the field about everything from tuberculosis treatment to social determinants affecting pregnant Black women. The excitement that the students exuded throughout the day was invigorating and their smiles, paired with their attentive demeanors, showed no signs of the exhaustive juggling act I assume they were engaged in.

I began to think about next summer: how lucky our institution would be to host these exuberant students for 8 weeks; how lucky our faculty members would be to engage in research with them; and how lucky I was to have them as the audience for my information session that evening.

Aria Small presents at 2023 REACH-HBMC event

Not only was I able to connect with first-year medical students eagerly anticipating the opening date of our application period, but I was able to reconnect with almost every Meharry mentee who was a part of the program in Summer 2023. I watched past REACH-HBMC mentees speak confidently and passionately about the research they partook in at Stanford Medicine throughout Summer 2023. I received updates from them about the post-program research they were continuing to work on with their Stanford mentors. One of the mentees even mentioned that they might be returning to Stanford during winter break for hands-on experience with a new research project.

One of the top highlights for me was when I ran into 2023 mentee Devi Veerappan, who experienced a similar week as I had leading up to the Meharry Research Fair. She mentioned the nerves she felt the night before her individual poster presentation and the phone calls she had with her Stanford mentor, Reena Thomas, MD, PhD, to ensure she dotted her i’s and crossed her t’s. This sounded eerily similar to the Zoom call I’d had with one of my supervisors, Helena McCombie, as we discussed my own nervousness. I echoed the affirmations Helena spoke to me that week to Devi. “You are more than capable. You have nothing to worry about.”  

When I began my presentation that evening, I forgot why I was nervous to begin with. A day that started full of nerves and anxiety turned into an evening of reflection and hopeful anticipation of the future. I may have presented alone, but I felt far from lonely. I followed the lead of the second-year students, who presented their posters confidently earlier that day, and spoke about the REACH-HBMC program boldly and with passion. I had Sonoo’s calming mentorship instilled in me, Helena’s encouraging words replaying in my mind, the support of Briana and Glynn (‘23 HBMC mentees) who so willingly joined me for the Q&A, and the affirmative energy of the 40 first-year medical  students who attended. To quote a fitting lyric from “Moment 4 Life” with which I have no qualms: “I couldn’t do it all alone, we.”  

 2023 REACH-HBMC mentee & Meharry Research Fair poster award recipient, Devi Veerappan

In my eyes, the presentation was a success. The best word to describe the experience was energizing. The experience provided exactly the confidence boost and reaffirmation I needed as we prepare to do it all over again in Summer 2024. To top it all off, when I was boarding my plane after the two-day trip, I received an unexpected text message from Devi. It was a photo of her smiling from ear-to-ear as she received an award for her poster presentation. 

I hope every Stanford faculty and staff member is lucky enough to connect with one or more of our REACH-HBMC mentees in one capacity or another this upcoming summer,whether that be in the hallways of the hospital, in line at a coffee shop, or at the bench in a wet lab.

The mentees often thanked me for encouraging and supporting them during their 8-week research experience in Summer 2023, but I wish I told them how much they were inspiring me each and every day. As someone with no research experience, witnessing their work has inspired me to consider exploring my own qualitative research questions. Watching them show up every day as their authentic selves with the willingness to share their stories with me and others has inspired me to take up space and exist freely in areas where I would normally code-switch. I am beyond lucky to not only help the mentees through their 8-week research experience but to learn alongside them.

The REACH-HBMC Program prides itself on being a bi-directional learning experience, with mentors having a lasting impact on the career growths of their mentees and the mentees' contributions to their labs making a lasting impact on their mentors. But as I sit here writing this, multi-directional feels more fitting. The main reason the mentees come to campus is to conduct research for 8 weeks but, during that time, they are much more than just visiting researchers. They are real people with real stories and their contagious energy and enthusiasm allow them to naturally form positive relationships with individuals outside of their research labs. The diverse experiences and backgrounds they bring to our campus enrich our community, moving well beyond their mentee-mentor dyads. I can only hope that the mentees’ decision to participate in the REACH-HBMC Program one day resembles a meaningful pebble in their own beautiful mosaics.

I hope every Stanford faculty and staff member is lucky enough to connect with one or more of our REACH-HBMC mentees in one capacity or another this upcoming summer,whether that be in the hallways of the hospital, in line at a coffee shop, or at the bench in a wet lab.

In my opinion, the REACH Initiative is one of the most impressive mosaics I have ever witnessed. Pieces seem trivial when viewed apart, but together, they create something greater, more beautiful, and more purposeful. Every individual who has played even the smallest role in advancing the mission of the REACH Initiative deserves credit for their contribution to this creation. I’d like to think that the mosaic is far from finished, but our progress is admirable and the artistic direction is palpable and noteworthy.

Not many can say that they have the opportunity to play a part in improving health equity and empowering the next generation of remarkable, intentional, and dedicated doctors...How lucky and blessed are we?

 REACH-HBMC mentors and mentees gather (Summer 2023)