Weill Cornell Medicine Community Celebrates Diversity with Annual Awards

Weill Cornell Medicine is honoring 15 faculty members, trainees, students and staff this year for their outstanding service and leadership in promoting diversity at the academic medical institution.

The annual Diversity Awards honor exemplary contributions through research, clinical care, community service and advocacy to improve the health of populations that historically have had unequal access to care. They also recognize excellence in mentorship and fostering an inclusive, engaging and welcoming workplace. Initiated in 2011 to reflect the institution’s commitment to diversity, encourage public service and mentorship, and build on existing initiatives to recruit and retain diverse students and faculty, the awards have since broadened in scope and grown in number to honor staff and excellence in the mentorship of women.

“Diversity and inclusion is a leading priority for our institution, as we see the lasting impact it can have on our mission of patient care, research and education,” said Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. “As we witness the many healthcare disparities the COVID pandemic has brought to the fore, and hear the calls for racial justice amplified by so many voices, we seek to honor the contributions of those members of our community who are working to create a culture of diversity in medicine and increase health equity in this country. While we are unable to mark this occasion in person because of the pandemic, we benefit every day from all our award winners do to strengthen our community.”

Five honorees were recognized this year with the Pioneers in Diversity Awards, which are awarded to members of the Weill Cornell Medicine community who have distinguished themselves as key contributors to a culture of diversity.

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Dr. Jessica Zonana

  • Dr. Jess Zonana, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry, received the Bruce Laine Ballard MD Award for Excellence in Mentorship. The award recognizes a faculty member who demonstrates a commitment to improving student life and to fostering a nurturing and supportive environment where students are able to thrive and succeed. Dr. Zonana has provided mentorship for the student-run Wellness Qlinic, which opened in March 2019. The clinic provides free mental health care for those who identify as LGBTQ+, regardless of insurance status, conducts research, and trains medical students and psychiatric residents in LGBTQ+ mental health. Dr. Zonana has played a key role in teaching psychiatric interviewing, planning treatment, and addressing social and systems-based needs of this patient group.

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Dr. Benjamin Hartley

  • Dr. Benjamin Hartley, resident physician in the Department of Neurological Surgery, received the Louis Wade Sullivan MD Award for Excellence in Public Health Advocacy. The award honors a resident or postdoctoral fellow who has been an outspoken champion for health promotion and a public health advocate, especially for medically underserved populations. Dr. Hartley co-founded and directs the Program for Individualized Mentorship Education Solutions Program, or PrIMES, a non-profit that pairs underrepresented and underserved minority pre-medical students in New York City with current medical students, residents or fellows who mentor them in the process of becoming a physician. PrIMES has helped 52 students prepare for their medical school application over the last two years, and plans to expand in the next year across New York State and then nationally.

  •  Dr. Karina Ruiz-Esteves ‘20 and Nneoma Adaku Tri-I MD-PhD student, received the Ida Sophia Scudder MD Award for Excellence in Public Service. The award recognizes medical, doctoral, MD-PhD or physician assistant students who have made significant contributions in the field of community service and providing care to the underserved. 
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    Dr. Karina Ruiz-Esteves ‘20 and
    Nneoma Adaku

    • Dr. Ruiz-Estevez has worked to improve the healthcare conditions of vulnerable populations and underserved communities at Weill Cornell Medicine and in New York City. At Weill Cornell Medicine, she was a senior clinician for the Weill Cornell Community Clinic, were she has cared for uninsured and underserved patients. She also worked as an evaluator and director of organizational operations for the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights (WCCHR), where she helped refugees requesting asylum. In New York City, she has worked at health fairs in low-income neighborhoods as a volunteer evaluator of Heart to Heart. She also served as teacher and family outreach coordinator for the Motivating Action through Community Health Outreach (MACHO) program in East Harlem, educating elementary school children about nutrition and helping restructure the program to serve the needs of the neighborhood, and she has served as a mentor to underrepresented minority students in the Health Professionals Recruitment and Exposures Program.
    • Adaku has advocated for diversity and social justice initiatives in various efforts at Weill Cornell Medicine. She has served as an executive board member for several student organizations, including the Student National Medical Association, the Students for Equal Opportunity in Medicine and #WhiteCoats4BlackLives. She drafted a petition to establish the Office of Student Diversity and helped bring about the weekly Coffee Hour, an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to convene and connect with one another about issues affecting the community. Adaku also co-founded the Advocacy in Medicine Conference, and the Association of Diverse Physician-Scientists in Training within the MD-PhD program. Moreover, she has been active in mentoring students through pipeline programs such as Gateways to the Laboratory and the Health Professions Recruitment and Exposure Program (HPREP), and volunteering with Heart to Heart and WCCHR.

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      Dr. Aubrey Leukart

  • Dr. Aubrey Leukart, manager of career and professional development at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, won the Administrative Staff Award, which recognizes staff members who embody the spirit of cultural diversity and service. Dr. Leukart has worked to ensure diverse student feedback and engage the full spectrum of students at the graduate school by meeting regularly with the leaders of the Tri-Institutional Minority Society and other student organizations, checking in with the Office of Student Diversity and with students directly. She created the inaugural Early Careers Panel for graduate students as part of the Weill Cornell Medicine Diversity Week initiative and worked with the Tri-Institutional Minority Society to ensure that the panel included diverse representatives.

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    Dr. Silvia Formenti

  • Dr. Silvia Formenti, chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology and the Sandra and Edward Meyer Professor of Cancer Research, was honored with the Jessica M. & Natan Bibliowicz Award for Excellence in Mentoring Women Faculty, which recognizes outstanding faculty who demonstrate commitment to advancing the academic careers of women in the areas of clinical care, research or education.

Nine Weill Cornell Medicine faculty, trainees and students were recognized with the Dean’s Diversity and Healthcare Disparity Research Awards. The awards, now in their second cycle of funding, provide four levels of one-year research funding to investigators whose work seeks to improve the health of underrepresented minorities and achieve health equity for people locally and globally, through basic, translational, clinical, informatics or outcomes research. The winners include:

Faculty ($50,000 each)

Fellows and postdoctoral associates ($25,000 each)

  • Dr. John Vaughn, fellow in the Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology
  • Dr. John Keefe, fellow in the Department of Psychiatry

Residents ($10,000 each)

  • Dr. Nabeel Wahid, resident in the Department of Medicine

Medical/Graduate Students ($5,000 each to be used for an area of concentration scholarly project or graduate research project)

  • Ishani Premaratne, a medical student from the class of 2021

While the awards were not presented at the usual ceremony this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Weill Cornell Medicine plans to celebrate in person at the next Celebration of Diversity.

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