To many first-generation college students, a career in academic medicine can seem out-of-reach. About 10 percent of IU School of Medicine students identify as “first-gen,” meaning they were not only the first in their families to attend college, but they also navigated their way into a highly competitive medical school program.
Along the way, many have taken inspiration from first-gen faculty.
“I am currently rotating with nephrologist Dr. Skye El-Sayegh, who is from Lebanon and is first-gen,” said third-year medical student Taylor Prechtel, co-president of the First-Generation Committee at IU School of Medicine. “Her bedside manner is outstanding, and the way she breaks down some of the most complex nephrology topics is admirable. She makes learning and coming to work fun.”
From the school’s executive board to campus leaders and pioneering physician-scientists, first-gen faculty are among IU School of Medicine’s most prominent faces.
Chemen Neal, MD
Executive Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion; Chief Diversity Officer
Associate Professor of Clinical Obstetrics & Gynecology
When Chemen Neal became the school’s first executive associate dean for equity and inclusion in January 2023, she brought first-gen representation to the senior level of leadership at IU School of Medicine. “If you know what your passion and purpose is, you come from a strong place,” Neal said. “That’s your compass.”
She faced adversity at a young age after her mother died in a car accident when she was 11.
“Being a teenage girl with a dad as your only parent can be challenging, and so I had this wonderful nurse practitioner whose office taught me all the things,” Neal said. “It was weird, but I would just make appointments all the time for whatever, mostly just to talk. I realized I wanted to do that—I wanted to be a women’s health doctor.”
Neal would go on to become the first gynecologist in the state of Indiana to treat women with recurrent vaginitis—a condition that disproportionately affects Black and Latinx women—opening the state’s only clinic specifically for that condition at the Coleman Center for Women at IU Health University Hospital.
The path to becoming a physician wasn’t easy. When Neal had her first child during her undergrad years at San Diego State, her family advised her to quit school and go to work. She persevered, choosing to listen to her own voice.
“I leaned on other people in the educational space who could see what I was trying to do and took advantage of programs for first-generation students,” Neal said.
Neal became the first female medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine to enter the program with a child. She went on to complete her residency training at IU School of Medicine, where she joined the faculty in 2011.
Her experiences undergird her passion for developing programs to support faculty and trainees who come from historically marginalized populations.
“I know there are other people out there who have a similar experience and have so much potential, but they just need support to realize that potential,” Neal said. “That’s my foundation. I strongly believe that everybody deserves to have the tools they need to be successful.”
Learn why Neal tries not to give advice.
Bradley Allen, MD, PhD
Senior Associate Dean for Medical Student Education
D. Craig Brater Professor of Professionalism
Most medical students in Indianapolis are familiar with proud first-gen faculty member Brad Allen. In his leadership role with Medical Student Education (MSE), Allen aims to create an exciting and challenging curriculum for medical students while also attending to their well-being.
He is principal investigator for the Indiana Primary Care Advancement in Clinical Training (INPACT) program, which just received a new $15.4 million grant from the Health Resources & Services Administration to help IU School of Medicine recruit more students from medically underserved areas of the state and provide Indiana’s future doctors with the tools needed to offer high-quality care to vulnerable communities.
Allen calls himself an “accidental tourist” in his career.
“I grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, where I learned an appreciation for plants, animals, and for our small-town family medicine doctor, who was always available to stitch up my lacerations accumulated through work and play,” Allen said.
Those scuffs turned serious when Allen was struck by a car while riding his bicycle at age 11. He suffered a concussion and fractures to his femur and tibia.
“I spent a month in the hospital in traction for my fractures—including Christmas,” Allen said. He spent another eight weeks in a body cast. “I learned to appreciate the care provided by the nursing staff and orthopedists who cared for me.”
Allen majored in microbiology at the University of Iowa, then applied to the school’s medical scientist program. Later, as chief resident in internal medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Allen discovered how much he enjoyed teaching while continuing to be involved with research.
“I came to IU School of Medicine in 2000 as an assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases, intent on carving out a career in basic science research involving the molecular pathogenesis of streptococcal endocarditis,” Allen said.
Over time, he realized he wanted to keep education as a part of his work life. In his role with MSE, Allen was instrumental in developing the curriculum launched in 2016. He enjoys seeing students grow into compassionate, confident and effective physicians.
“Don’t forget who you are and why you chose this career,” he advises them. “You each have a rich life experience to draw from, and it is important to stay grounded in your values and courteous and compassionate with your patients, your colleagues and yourself during your journey.”
Read a Q&A with Allen where he discusses his work and his recreational passion for cycling.
Kathy D. Miller, MD
Ballvé Lantero Professor of Oncology
Associate Director of Clinical Research, IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center
Kathy Miller is one of the nation’s leading oncologists in breast cancer.
She knew from the time she was 5 years old that she wanted to be a doctor. No one in her family had ever gone to college, but her parents encouraged her to follow her dreams. They were so dedicated to this pledge that they decided to have only two children to make college more affordable.
“I never felt pressure to go to college—it just always seemed like a given,” Miller said.
She enrolled at the University of Miami and majored in biology. When she applied to medical school at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, her interview with Dr. James Jude, a Miami thoracic surgeon credited as being one of the three “fathers” of CPR, was so impressive he invited Miller to scrub in for surgery following the interview.
George Sledge, MD, IU’s first breast oncologist and the physician who laid the foundation for the breast cancer program at the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, also recognized Miller’s brilliance, noting her dual competence in research and clinical care during her oncology fellowship at IU School of Medicine. He later “begged” Miller to return to Indiana to take a faculty position in 1999.
Miller’s prowess as a physician-scientist has helped solidify IU’s standing as a world leader in breast cancer research. As director of clinical research at the Vera Bradley Foundation Center for Breast Cancer Research, Miller is a prominent leader in the field who runs national clinical trials. Much of her research is focused on improving outcomes for patients with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive type of breast cancer that lacks common traits used to diagnose and treat most other breast cancers.
“There is an incredible excitement, as a researcher, to be the first one to see promising results, and to design a clinical experiment to test them,” Miller said. “I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to take care of patients and not be able to be engaged in the research. Because no matter how hard I work in the clinic, there are only so many patients I can take care of. But the impact of the research I do can affect thousands.”
Learn why Miller hates pink.
Carmella Evans-Molina, MD, PhD
Director, Indiana Diabetes Research Center
Eli Lilly and Company Professor of Pediatric Diabetes
With roots in West Virginia’s coal country, Carmella Evans-Molina never dreamed she would one day be a nationally recognized physician-scientist and director of the Center for Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases at IU School of Medicine.
When Evans-Molina was a child, she thought her pediatrician was “the most amazing person in the world.” While that may have foreshadowed her future career working with pediatric diabetes patients, the path to becoming a physician or a scientist seemed out of reach.
Evans-Molina’s parents married young. Her father worked as a foreman in a coal mine and her mother as a kindergarten aide. They never had the opportunity to go to college but insisted their daughters would. “That was a constant when I was growing up—college was not going to be optional, and education was always very important,” Evans-Molina said.
Her grandmother was also an inspiration. Finding herself unexpectedly divorced with eight children, she enrolled in college and became a West Virginia schoolteacher.
“I have had the good fortune to have the example of two very strong women in my life,” Evans-Molina said of her mother and grandmother. “Their example shaped very much who I am.”
Evans-Molina studied pharmacy at West Virginia University before going to medical school at Marshall University, followed by a fellowship at Harvard Medical School–Massachusetts General Hospital. She next pursued an endocrinology fellowship at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, where she simultaneously earned a Master of Science degree, then followed that with a PhD.
Evans-Molina joined the faculty at IU School of Medicine in 2008. Today, she leads the Long-Term Investigative Follow-Up in TrialNet, which provides ongoing monitoring of clinical study participants to determine complications, benefits or other effects from treatments. She has published more than 130 research papers in the field of diabetes and metabolic disease.
Cognizant of her own journey, Evans-Molina maintains a “warm and open” culture in her lab, where junior colleagues can develop skills.
“I was able to build a successful research career because of the patience of others and because I have had amazing mentors,” she said. “I want to preserve those same opportunities for the next generation of scientists.”
Learn why Evans-Molina says “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
Sylk Sotto, EdD, MPS, MBA
Vice-Chair for Faculty Affairs and Professional Development
Vice-Chair for diversity, health equity and inclusion, Department of Medicine
As a first-generation student, Sylk Sotto demonstrated resilience as she navigated her way through higher education, earning three graduate degrees beyond her bachelor’s in chemistry. Now she helps others navigate academic spaces and develop their leadership skills.
“I’m making historically marginalized students and faculty feel like they belong and being a cheerleader to all in their professional journey,” Sotto said.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Sotto attended a highly selective residential school emphasizing science and math. She then patched together a small scholarship, a Pell Grant and student loans to attend Colorado State University. After graduation, she went to work as an analytical chemist before pursuing an MBA at the University of Denver—which she followed with a master’s in health care leadership.
Sotto did her doctoral dissertation on the experiences of Black and Latinx faculty in academic medicine, studying the organizational structures which create barriers to their advancement.
“I consider myself an administrator-practitioner-scholar,” Sotto said. “When I thought about what part of my job gave me the most joy, it has always been supporting faculty and students of color.”
Sotto’s current work at IU School of Medicine includes professional development, inclusive learning environments, organizational leadership and health equity.
Sotto is affiliated with the Indiana Clinical and Translational Institute, where she serves as co-director of workforce development and director of All IN for Health. She is also health equity lead for the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement at the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center. In 2022, Sotto received the Administrators of Internal Medicine Distinguished Service Award from the Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine.
Despite her many accolades, Sotto said, “The first-gen identity doesn’t go away, even when you’re a faculty member.
“There’s still a lot I don’t know in terms of resources. That’s one of the reasons I focus so much on faculty development and support. I want to be part of others’ successes.”
Learn how Sotto’s Puerto Rican heritage has shaped her values.
Karen Smartt, EdD
Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions
Many first-gen medical students encounter an understanding supporter during the daunting medical school admissions process. IU School of Medicine Director of Admissions Karen Smartt offers applicants continual coaching to achieve success.
As a first-generation student from a minoritized population, Smartt had enthusiastic parental support but little working knowledge of how to apply to a university or for specific programs and scholarships. Her ambition and perseverance paid off as she went on to earn not only a bachelor’s degree, but also two master’s degrees and a Doctor of Education in organizational leadership.
“I have a strong interest in students who have similar experiences from the standpoint of needing that extra help or direction,” Smartt said. “That’s why I think I am so passionate about trying to reach out as much as I can to students who are members of the first-generation population and have backgrounds in underserved communities.”
Under Smartt’s direction, IU School of Medicine has substantially increased underrepresented in medicine (URM) admissions and is now ranked among the nation’s top medical education programs for URM enrollment.
Although neither of her parents had college degrees, education was highly valued in her home. When Smartt was 8 years old, her father unexpectedly died. She credits her mother with providing a stable environment for the family.
“Being self-sufficient was something we always talked about—not being reliant on others but thinking about how you can support yourself and be prepared,” Smartt said.
With a solid academic record, Smartt was encouraged to apply for college.
“It was daunting to figure out on your own how to initiate the application process and figure out the finances,” Smartt recalled.
An athlete, Smartt studied sports marketing and management at Indiana University. After graduation, she worked for a fitness retailer before landing a position as an admissions counselor at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. Two years later, she became assistant director of admissions at Ball State University.
“That’s how I shifted into higher education,” Smartt said. “I tell students all the time, you might have a vision for something, but life can take you in a different direction.”
Read more about Smartt’s compassionate guidance and empathetic approach to medical school admissions.
First-Generation College Celebration
First-Generation College Celebration Day is November 8. Launched by the Council for Opportunity in Education in 2017, the annual celebration encourages communities to understand better the systemic barriers plaguing higher education and the support necessary for this critical and resilient population to continue thriving. The First-Generation Committee at Indiana University School of Medicine was formed in 2018 to foster a network of students, faculty and staff at the school who identify as first-generation.