Umaru Barrie MD PhD speaks about physicians and the power of mentorship.
“As busy as I am, I try to give 15, 10 minutes every week to someone because I recognize the power of that. And I recognize that I wouldn’t be where I am if someone who was even busier than me didn’t give me that 10 or 30 minutes.”
-Dr. Umaru Barrie
Today DocWorking is pleased to re-share an editor’s favorite DocWorking the Whole Physician Podcast episode, 115: Physicians and the Power of Mentorship with Dr. Umaru Barrie. First published in November of 2021, Coach Gabriella Dennery MD has a refreshing conversation with Dr. Umaru Barrie about his journey in medicine and all about how to benefit from mentorships to boost your progress in your personal, community service and professional life, as well as how to pay it forward and become a mentor. Dr. Barrie gives us an inside look at how he benefited from having mentors in his personal life, education, community service, and professional career. On a scale of 1 to 10, he ranks having mentors with an importance of 1000! Do you have a mentor/mentors? Is having a mentor something that you haven’t previously considered, or are you unsure how to find the right mentor? Do you wish you were further along in reaching your targeted trajectory or wish you had help knowing how to go about reaching your goals? This episode shines a light on these topics and more. Tune in to learn how to start reaching your full potential today.
Umaru Barrie, a Sierra Leone/Guinean-American by way of Harlem, NY, has completed his 6th year combined Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)/Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) candidate at UT Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) with a research focus on Molecular Microbiology and medical interests in Neurosurgery, Global Health, Academic Medicine and Molecular Microbiology. Prior to joining UTSW, he was a National Institute of Health scholar working under the mentorship of Dr. Desruisseaux at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he studied Chagas Disease and Malaria. During medical school, he served as medical class Co-President, Board of Directors of Student National Medical Association, Albert Schweitzer Fellow, Co-Director of National Future Leadership Project while maintaining active involvement in research publishing manuscripts in Neurosurgery, Academic Medicine, Community and Global Health. He has been fortunate to give back by co-founding numerous nonprofit organizations that raised money for humanitarian relief, providing uninsured patients with health literacy programs, creating relief projects to support hurricane victims, delivering healthcare and medicines to underprivileged communities in the Dominican Republic, establishing programs for underrepresented minorities, and organizing research projects geared towards HIV/AIDS and Child Mortality in Uganda. He aspires to become the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO).
You can find him on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/umarubarrie/
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Please enjoy the full transcript below
Dr. Umaru: As busy as I am, I try to every week give 15, 20, 30 minutes to someone, because I recognize the power of that and I recognize I wouldn’t be where I am, if someone who was even busier than me didn’t give me that 10 minutes to 30 minutes.
Dr. Gabriella: Hi, my name is Gabriella Dennery, MD, life coach at DocWorking and Welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. And as part of these podcasts, I am always just thrilled to introduce medical students, medical trainees to the conversation, because it’s important to get their point of view as well as, what does it mean to be well grounded? What does it mean to stay engaged? What are some of the tricks and tools of the trade to make it through a pretty challenging process, that is medical school, medical training, etc.? So, I’m thrilled to bring to DocWorking today, Dr. Umaru Barrie, who recently finished his MD-PhD. And so, I’m excited to bring him. He has some really interesting insights as to how he’s managed to stay engaged all this time through a pretty arduous process. Dr. Umaru Barrie, welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.
Dr. Umaru: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much, Gabriella for the warm introduction and thank you so much for having me. I am excited to be here today.
Dr. Gabriella: Well, thank you. Well, I’m going to get started and ask you about your medical journey, which is really, really pretty fascinating, but how did you decide that you wanted to become a doctor?
Dr. Umaru: Thank you so much for the question. It’s been quite a journey to say the least. Just more background of me, I was born in Sierra Leone in West Africa. In initial times of my life, my family actually had to flee because of the civil war in Sierra Leone. So they went to the neighboring country of Guinea. I think one thing that always stuck by me while growing up was always witnessing diseases, whether it’s my uncle’s, whether it’s my mom, even myself. I still remember to this day, just going into the county hospital there which is just like, three in the entire city of 10 million people, just recognizing the problems that people face just because of illnesses.
Growing up and I love science, I love the maths, and I was afforded the opportunity to come to the United States after my father came to the US. And just through undergrad and even junior high school, I still stuck to my sciences, still stuck to the maths, because that’s what I liked, that’s what I was drawn to. Later, I recognized I was drawn to that because I recognized that I like helping people. I like seeing people well, I like seeing how people survive and also like understanding mechanism of diseases. So going from that to undergrad, I didn’t know I wanted to do medicine then or I didn’t know the path. I only recognized the path later as I started learning about biology, chemistry, and all these different things that make up to sciences.
After my senior year, I recognized, “Okay, I’ve been doing premed for a while now. Let me apply to medicine.” I know it was already January and someone told me, “Hey, you’re supposed to apply back in summertime.” This is where I recognized I’m already behind. I was like, “Okay, so, now, I have a whole year. I will apply this summer.” I was like, “What do I do in the meanwhile?” This was a time when I was learning about science, I was learning about medicine, I was learning about research, I was learning about all these things that will make up my future interest, which is MD-PhD.
As soon as I learned about MD-PhD, I was like, “Someone can actually do that? You can actually get both the medical degree and a PhD? Wow, what do I have to do to get both of those?” Luckily for me, one of my mentors actually recommended a conference to go to. I went to the conference and that’s where I learned about PhD, I saw speaking individuals like, “I want to do that. I want to do what you said I could be, a physician-scientist.” I started applying to these different programs and I was able to do a research program at Albert Einstein and that just opened the whole realm for me to actually become where I am today, which is physician-scientist in training.
Dr. Gabriella: I think what I love about your story is that you always ask the next question. In other words, “Okay, this is where I want to go, how do I get there, who do I talk to, let me go find somebody to talk to?” Is that do you think has been your approach forever, or is this something that you’ve learned along the way?
Dr. Umaru: I think I just got tired of stumbling upon things. I would say, even in my high school, that was something I stumbled upon. I was just like, “Oh, science.” I just saw the word “science” and ‘math’. One day, when I was researching high school, I was like, “Okay, science and math. Oh, I’m going to go there.” Then I applied there. Same thing in undergrad. First thing I saw was, “Oh, business.” I was doing business major. I stumbled upon and then randomly my friend was taking a class called human biology, so I stumbled upon it. I was like, “Okay, let me take that class with my friend.” That’s when I switched from business to medicine, to just, “I don’t like business. I like learning about this.”
So, I stumbled upon so much then I realized, “Why am I not actually planning where I want to be?” Then I adopted, I was like, “Okay, so, now, I’m going to plan when I transfer out of the school.” What I’m going to do the first year? I’m going to plan the second, the third year. I’m learning to research what’s actually there. What I need to do so that it’s not much of stumbling, it’s more of reaching these targets. And it has helped me throughout the years more, and now, I even plan a five, to 10, to 20 years and as I grow older, I’m even planning 30 years, 40 years. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to reach that exactly. It just means that I know my trajectory and I’m also flexible enough to recognize when I’m not able to reach that target that I set for myself.
I think that’s for everyone else it’s just to understand where you want to be and then seeing how you can use not only the internet, but also those around you to make sure that you know as much about where you want to go. Because the more you know, the better you can be. As I always tell people, my biggest fear is not knowing what’s next, because then I can’t plan for probably the pitfalls or the obstacles that I might face. It’s always about making it easier for me to reach that level when I’m there or when I’m trying to get there.
Dr. Gabriella: So, do you think that having, let’s say, a 10-year vision, 20-year vision, 30-year vision happened because of the stumbles?
Dr. Umaru: I think it did, because I recognize that I missed out on a lot by stumbling. I was stumbling on things and I felt lucky that I was actually able to stumble upon those opportunities, because some of my colleagues weren’t able to stumble upon those same things as I did. Maybe it’s the ‘right place right time thing’, because I recognized it was because I was doing those things I was stumbling upon that actually set me up for stuff that I would do later. For example, the MD-PhD path, I stumbled upon research, research, research. And then, later, I recognized, “Oh, I actually like that.” And then when I learned about MD-PhD and they’re like, “Oh, you know, you need to research,” I was like, “Oh, I actually did that.”
I’d stumbled upon those things that now I’m in a position where I’m like, “I don’t want anyone stumbling upon it. I want people– like, when you go into undergrad, if you’re interested in a path that I’m going into, I want you to recognize that there’re these thousands of research opportunities that you can do. I stumbled upon one and applied to one. The individuals can actually apply to 20, 30. They have choices. Me, I didn’t have those choices early on. Now, It’s all about basically, maximizing the learning and maximizing the planning, so that I have those choices when it comes down for it.
Dr. Gabriella: And you mentioned earlier a few minutes ago, utilize the people around you. Can you tell me a little more about that and how you’ve been able to do that?
Dr. Umaru: Yes. The first time I actually did research, I was walking into advisement office and I saw a flyer and it says like, “You can get $2,500, if you do this.” That’s all I saw. Because of that I applied and I was like, “Okay, I need this money for the summer, because that’s how I’m able to sustain myself.” Because of the opportunity, I got my first mentor, and my mentor was always big on giving everyone opportunities, emailing everyone, everything every single time. He always like, “Umaru, have you seen this opportunity, have you seen that one, have you seen that one?” It just opened up my horizons to just be like, “Wow, there’s a lot out there.” If I didn’t meet Dr. Christopher Fernando, who I’m always forever grateful, if I didn’t meet that person, if he wasn’t throwing opportunities at me every single time, I honestly wouldn’t be here today.
It wasn’t just like about research. He would always sit me down and talk about time management, priorities, and always knowing what’s next, and recognizing my true potential, and engaging down into my community, but also, with every single one of my peers, because you never know who you will meet in the future or who you’ll need in the future as well. I think it’s just recognizing the power of those around you, and what they can do for you, and what you can do for them. Because as I always say, it always takes a village and you never know what that person can actually open doors for you or that door that may be locked for you forever, that next person might have the keys that they’ve been holding on forever to make sure they let the next person. I think it is recognizing that you cannot do everything yourself and it always takes a team, it takes mentors, it takes just individuals just recognizing that there will be obstacles, but there’re people who have passed all obstacles that can make it easier for you to walk into that next door.
Dr. Gabriella: We got this question actually from one of our audience members. How do you find a mentor and how do you know that’s the right fit for you?
Dr. Umaru: That’s a great question, because not all advice is good advice too, recognizing that. So, for me, it’s always been seeing the action of individuals. For example, that mentor I was talking about, Dr. Christopher Fernando, I stood afar and saw what he was doing for people. It wasn’t what he was saying, it was what he was actually doing. That’s the first thing. Your mentors, make sure that they’re doing the work and make sure that they’re doing the work that you want to do, whether it’s community service. If you see someone doing the work, and you see them out and about, and they’re about the work, and you see them there, it’s not just about the flashy awards or things like that. You actually see them doing the work, and you know that they’re genuine about the work that they’re doing. It’s not just for the shows. Then, you’re like, “That person will be great for community service.” If it’s for research, see the productivity, see the mentorship that they’ve given to the next students or to their students, and see how available they are for you as well.
So, I always combine those. It’s the action, it’s the availability, the mentorship part, and also the communication. Because if someone’s doing the work and they’re not replying to your email or they’re not communicating back to you, then that’s not a good fit for you. And I always trust the energy too that someone gives me. I’ve emailed a lot of people to be my mentors. But the ones that actually reply back, and the ones that always contact back and always give me the good advice are the ones that I always stay in contact, and the ones that always reaches back like, “Hey, how are you doing? Hey, how are you?” I always say, “Everyone’s busy. Are you prioritizing me as I’m prioritizing you?” So look for mentors that actually prioritize your time, because I don’t think it matters what age or thing. It’s just like, “Are you prioritizing me as I’m trying to learn from you?” That’s the biggest thing for me.
Dr. Gabriella: So if it’s not a good fit or let’s say somebody’s not responding, they are available but not really excited. There might be different criteria for different people, but I can imagine someone who’s not responding and it gets pretty discouraging after a while. Have you had to just move on to find some other people instead, if you’ve had no response from someone or lukewarm response from someone?
Dr. Umaru: I always try to saturate the market. [laughs] That’s my approach to mentors. If I see someone doing global health in Malawi, I try to find two to three people who are doing global health in Malawi, who I can contact, because not only can I learn different aspects of working in Malawi from three different people, there’re no limitations on how many mentors you can get. I always believe that even if they’re doing the same thing, you can learn different aspects of it from different individuals. If I email someone today and they don’t reply for a week, two weeks, I email them again and be like, “Hey, I just want to make sure you got an email.” I may email again another three weeks later just to make sure and seeing if they are available for me and then try to get them on the phone.
But if I still see that they’re too busy, then I email other individuals to see how receptive they are. But also, I think mentors give mentors. Like, my first mentor gave me other mentors who they trust that will basically answer me. If I have a mentor right now in whatever realm, “Hey, do you know someone who will be a great mentor for this thing that I’m trying to do?” And typically, they know who’s going to reply and who’s not going to reply. So I don’t think people should get discouraged by individuals not replying. It is a busy world, especially for professionals. It’s just recognizing, don’t limit yourself to just like, “If it’s not that person” No. You always want to make sure there’re two, three people and I will contact them and see who replies, but I was also trying to make sure I still continue with the other two people just recognizing that they might give me something that the other person might not. And also, utilize the existing network, whether it’s an association, whether it’s a club, just utilizing those resources to make sure you get the right people for whatever you’re trying to do, whatever it may be.
Dr. Gabriella: On a scale of one to 10, how important – 10 being absolutely crucial and one being not at all – how important is it to find a mentor in your field or your area of interest in order to succeed?
Dr. Umaru: I will say a thousand. [laughs] That’s how important it is, because I recognize, especially just thinking back to my background and what I had to do to get to where I am, I would not be here without my second mentor that I met during my research program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. So, I wanted to do MD-PhD. Lucky for me, my mentor was an MD-PhD Director at Einstein, so he was able to give me all the gems, all the things that I needed to do that I didn’t really know. Because it’s not just about your stats and things, it’s about how you package everything. So he was able to show me how to package it, how to write a research statement, how to write my personal statement. The first personal statement I wrote, he was like, “Go back and redo it.” [laughs] The first research statement I wrote, it was all red when he got through it.
Dr. Gabriella: [laughs]
Dr. Umaru: You see, he had the time, he prioritized my essays, and he also gave me good advice on how to proceed forward. He knew the game. He was like, “Apply to this many schools.” See, if I didn’t have him, how would I know how many schools to apply or what the content of my MD-PhD statement should have been? He removed barriers that I didn’t even know existed. That’s what mentors can do for you. You may not know what barriers will exist and they will just come and be like, “Have you thought about this? Wait, what about that?” See, that’s the power of mentors. Safety for community service. I will go and be like, “Oh, I want to do this project.” Same thing for mentor for community service will say, “Hey, have you thought about this, have you spoken to this person? Let me put you in touch with that person. Oh, how can we make it even bigger? Have you seen this grant? They could give you money for it.”
And also, the cosign is very important. Because many times you will need a recommendation from that person or you will need them to basically sign up on something, because maybe you’re junior faculty, or junior level, or you’re student in training, and you need someone who may be like, “I trust this person to do the work.” That can take you from getting a rejection to an acceptance. People don’t recognize, like, I would say, mentors for every single aspect of your life. For my personal life, I have a mentor, for my community service, I have a mentor, for global health, I have a mentor, for research, I have a mentor. So if I decide tomorrow, I’m interested in videography, I am going to try to find someone who I’ve seen posts a lot of videos and things be like, “How do you do it? What did you learn how to cut videos? Where do you learn this? What should I be on the lookout for? How do I make quality?” Because you understand that you don’t want to make the same mistakes or they will see that you are inquiring and they will help you basically go from zero to thousand without having to go to zero, one, two, three, four, five. That’s where mentors can help you – jump steps and avoid pitfalls overall.
Dr. Gabriella: So what I’m getting from you is that mentors are not just on a scale of 1 to 10 and the importance of 9 or 10, but the importance of one thousand. And that you in your trajectory have utilized or found mentors over many, many years and for, as you said, different aspects of your life. To succeed and more importantly, I think to accelerate your journey, is to have people in your corner and you’ve identified people in your corner. Some you were assigned, some you sought out. And, I mean, I’ve been assigned mentors and I know medical students are assigned a mentor, but the question is, is it up to them to go look for more?
Dr. Umaru: Yes, 100%. Assigned mentors are great because they understand their responsibility and they may get you from A to B, but you have to realize that assignment is based on someone else’s judgment of your characteristics, and that person’s characteristics, and how it will match together. But also, if you seek out your mentors and you recognize what you’re trying to get out of it, so it’s more of a personal, “I need this, I’m trying to get to this point, so I see that person, I’m trying to get to that person.” Because sometimes, I feel like the assigned mentors, they’re great, they’re good, but it’s restrictive to a certain level, and if I’m the one seeking out, I try to make sure the mentorship is not just on an assignment level or I’m trying to get this and I’m done, but also for continuous purposes.
Some of those mentors that I sought out throughout the years, they’re the ones that I still keep to this day. The ones that I was assigned throughout undergrad or maybe in my post grad program, those ended as that program ended. So I feel like the ones that I sought out were the ones that helped me propel my career even further to where I am currently today. But it is important to get both because as I say, there’s no limit into the mentorship. You can always learn something new, and the knowledge is so vast out there that you need someone who been through it and can tell you not just the metrics or what you need, but also how they felt going through it, because that could be an important part of it as well, and sometimes, you just need someone to vent to. If you go to a presentation that didn’t go well and would be like, you need someone be like “Hey, how did you present this?” That can help out sometimes more than just be like, “Oh, you do this, do that.” This is like, “Hey, this is what the process was, this is how it was when I was doing it.” Sometimes, that can mean the world to someone, especially as a minority going through it because many time you feel alone in your path, and those individuals who’ve been through it, they will let you know how they were able to get through the obstacles that they faced. Probably, some of them even worse than what you are experiencing today or maybe your experience is probably worse, you never know, but just having the time and space to talk through it is very important.
Dr. Gabriella: How does a busy medical student or a busy MD-PhD student make the time to find mentors that are perhaps outside their assigned mentors that are able to help them with their trajectory? How have you made that happen for you?
Dr. Umaru: I think you have to recognize that 15, 20 minutes of your time can save someone three years. I’ve seen the power of that because some of my mentees, I recognize, even me just sitting down with them and telling them, “Hey, have you done this?” That’s something they’d probably never even fathom. Just think about throughout the process of applying to medical school, or I look at the essays and I’m like, “take that out”, or “add that in”, or, “the content is not there”, or, “add this school.” It is so interesting because some of my mentees, when they were applying to med school, I was like, “add that school.” It’s been like five of my mentees over the past two years, “add that school.” That school that I told them to add, that’s where they are right now. They’re like, “Wow, how did you know that was going to be a good fit for me?” Because sometimes, you don’t recognize what’s good for you until someone else sees it like, that school will give you all the tuition that you need.
I would say, as busy as I am, I try to every week give 15, 20, 30 minutes to someone, because I recognize the power of that. I recognize I wouldn’t be where I am if someone who was even busier than me didn’t give me that 10 minutes to 30 minutes of my time. So every day, or every week, when I plan out my week, I always have a box there for things, I put ‘development’ because I feel my mentors develop me as much as I develop them. And I post on LinkedIn, “Hey, for my premeds, do you need any help with anything? I am here. Please email me.” And typically, two to three premeds always contact me and they always like, “Oh, I’m applying” or, “I’m in the process of this”, or, “I’m a freshman.” Even someone in high school contacted me, “Oh, I need help with this.”
So, just recognizing that you can create your schedule to ensure that you can have time for individuals,. and that’s all that matters. Because even if you’ve later realized that, “Oh, I’m too busy this week,” you can always be like, “Okay, next week” or make sure you plan your schedule enough that you have time for the individuals that, you know, without you being there helping them, it’s going to take them even longer to recognize what they need for the next step.
Dr. Gabriella: So it’s about investing the time in creating mentor relationships and that is a thousand times worth it, because the investment of time upfront is going to yield incredible results moving forward, and then as you pay it forward as a mentor yourself to be able to make the time, so that you can do that for other people, which is phenomenal. So, my last question, Umaru, is about the last statement that you put on your bio, which said that your vision that 10 years from now, 10, 20, I don’t remember the range-
Dr. Umaru: [laughs] Yeah.
Dr. Gabriella: -you mentioned something about becoming the Director General of the World Health Organization.
Dr. Umaru: Yes.
Dr. Gabriella: How have you found a mentor for that?
Dr. Umaru: I have it, I was trying to reach the top, [laughs] but it doesn’t work that way for this one, so. [laughs] I have found incremental mentors, individuals doing like the global health work. Currently, I have mentors who are like, ministers of health in specific countries within Sub-Saharan Africa. They mentor me on what their roles are and what they do. For this, I have to approach it from that level like, “Okay, I have to go from country level, maybe then regional level,” and then I’ll reach there once they connect me to the World Health Organization, Director General. And I think that vision for me lies in understanding that it’s common perception. Now, it’s like there’s no basis of healthcare within the world and I feel there should be a base of where all countries, everyone should be afforded the same type of care, at least to the base right here. and if there’s added, that’s fine, too, but everyone should have the same type of health infrastructures that can prolong life. That is evident basically through seeing the life expectancies of Sub-Saharan Africa versus let’s say, the Westernized nations.
Working with the World Health Organization, as well as local groups and things like that, we can make sure or ensure there is a baseline of health afforded to every single human. Health is wealth, and we have to make sure that, you know, address the right type of things for social determinants of health, to poverty, to hygiene, to water, to all of these things that make up health. and I feel like it is within the power of the World Health Organization to ensure that those things are for everyone, because without that, we will continue to see the problems that we see to this day, which is unequal economic power, unequal health, unequal, just inequality. I believe health is the base for all of those.
Dr. Gabriella: Wow. Well, we will be keeping an eye on you as [laughs] you move towards your target, because I have no doubt you will get there and that you’re making the right moves already. And I’m so excited for you and one, congratulations again on getting your MD-PhD as you are continuing your research, and working with your mentors, and moving forward in this incredible vision for world health. It’s not a small thing. You’re not looking at little things there, Umaru.
Dr. Umaru: No. [laughs] I just think that we have the power. [laughs]
Dr. Gabriella: Yeah, I agree. We definitely do. And then you get to create the willingness.
Dr. Umaru: Yes.
Dr. Gabriella: Mm-hmm. Umaru Barrie, thank you so much for being my guest here at DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. As I said, we will be keeping an eye on you, and following your trajectory, and hopefully, we can bring you back in a little while to see how you’re doing.
Dr. Umaru: Thank you so much for the invitation and thank you for the great conversation. I appreciate your time.
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