Renee McDonald-Fleming grew up in a gabled brick house on 37th Street in Flatbush, Brooklyn, directly across the street from SUNY Downstate Medical Center. She used to ride her bike under the sycamores that dwarf the streetlights, and watch doctors take their smoke breaks by the ambulance bay from her bedroom window.
Twenty years later, Downstate is her medical school, just like she said.
“I’d say, ‘I’m going to be here. When the time comes, I’m going to be a doctor, and I’m going to come to this school,’” Renee said. “I just worked toward it.”
Renee is a third-year Downstate medical student, considering a specialty in OB/GYN, Gastroenterology or Pulmonology. She took the long way across the street, though, so to speak, working two years first in basic science and immunology at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and then as an NIH Health Disparity Fellow. Research led Renee to start contraception education classes at three women’s shelters in southeast Washington DC. Her interest in health led her to medical school.
“During my time at the NIH, I was thinking about how my passion for research fit with my desire to do medicine,” she said. She set up a meeting with Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, Downstate Chair of Urology, before she matriculated.
“I said, ‘I’m going to be a student, and I want to kind of do some public health research,’” Renee said. “That’s how it began. Halfway through the year, I found that the Alumni Association had a program where they funded research, and I applied.”
The summer 2015 research grant, funded by Downstate medical alumni, enabled Renee to work with the Downstate Department of Urology, with Dr. Weiss as advisor. She also collaborated with Dr. Michael Joseph of the School of Public Health, with assistance from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
Renee used data from the Brooklyn VA and the National Health Interview Survey database to determine how the diagnoses of cancer in minority men had changed following a 2012 USPSTF recommendation against the use of PSA for prostate cancer screening. With a majority population of minority students, Downstate had a prime population for the study, she said.
“(Dr. Weiss) let me act like I was the principle investigator,” she said. “Being a part of a team and following suit is important, but being a leader and thinking from the ground up, figuring out how to troubleshoot it, to make it work, from beginning to finish, is a good skill set.”
Public health, with its shifting social influences, requires constant investigation. “You have to think of innovative things, where you can have an impact,” she said. “This is population-based.”
As an NIH fellow, Renee got an idea while listening to the ads for female contraception on her Pandora radio station, targeting her geographic location. “They know the situation,” she said. She researched, contacted the DC government for free female condoms, and spent her afternoons answering questions in shelters.
“I decided I wanted to give the power of contraception to homeless women,” Renee said. “It was my first exposure to health disparities. Then I was like, this is how I can make an impact. This is what put the seed in my heart. In terms of being a physician, this is what I can do.”
Renee had her first vision, for medicine, as a second grader, hearing her friend’s doctor dad talk at a school career day. She had a second vision for her career while working with databases, interpreting the health data of a population. The summer research project offered practical hope that she could combine medicine and public health into one career. “This was the start,” Renee said. “I feel like this was something I’d always wanted to do and now I have the opportunity to do it. That’s how I see myself being of value as a physician, doing more in a public-health aspect to directly impact my patients.”