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Stairsteps, not roadblocks
Peggy Randon’s voice sounds through the video call: clear, serene, and—despite the chaos of the past year—joyful.
Across a campus left bare and snowy Michigan knolls, the optimism is unmistakable. This is someone who wakes up every morning and loves what they do, someone who lives a mission-driven life and has weaved purpose into all she does. Ask Peggy about her major, Microbiology, or her plan to become a physician-scientist, and watch her face light up—it’s infectious.
But Peggy wasn’t always certain what path she wanted to chart.
“I came to UM not knowing what I wanted to do,” Peggy recalls. “But my roommate during first-year was a cardiovascular researcher, and so she would come back to our room and talk to me about trypsinizing human vascular cells and working with molecular reagents and I just thought—that’s so cool.”
That was the lynchpin moment and soon after, Peggy quickly developed an enthusiasm for all things science. Despite her immediate fascination, she wasn’t sure how—or if—she could break into the field at UM.
“When I arrived at UM and in biology lectures I didn't see many Black people,” Peggy reflects. “So there was that idea of ‘maybe these opportunities aren't for me, maybe there's some prerequisite I’m missing out on’ and for those reasons, this couldn't be one of my passions.”
“There are so many avenues to achieving better health... I want to hold on to that throughout my career because I’ve seen how that's helped people in my community.”
But Peggy’s curiosity was piqued, and she spent the summer after first-year applying to natural science labs across campus, hoping to find a position for the Fall semester. After several unanswered emails, she finally landed a position with rheumatologist Dr. David Fox as a research assistant in his immunology lab, the subject that had attracted Peggy to the position in the first place.
“With every lab that I contacted, I wanted to find something that I could connect to,” Peggy emphasizes. “If not the research topic, then the methodology or the principal investigator’s background would motivate me to reach out.”
Immunology is all too relevant in Peggy’s personal life. Autoimmune diseases are prevalent in her family: her older brother has Vitiligo and her grandmother struggles with Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Peggy herself has alopecia areata, a condition that “develops when the immune system attacks the hair follicles, resulting in hair loss.”
When she first considered medicine as a career, that fear of being trapped into a box and having to adhere to a reigning orthodoxy (e.g. the debate around integrative or holistic medicine) was central to what held her back.
“My perception of being a doctor was that you're a doctor first—that's who you are and that's what you give to society,” Peggy explains. “I worried that I would be sacrificing other long-standing interests, like art, in pursuit of medicine. But a lot of scientists are also creatives. Inherent to being a scientist you are innovative, and I love that because it makes it so easy to connect what I'm already doing and what I hope to do in the future.”
As an LSA senior, Peggy has already found a way to intertwine her creative interests with her professional ones. She recently began the voluntary student organization, ThirdSpace Hospital Creative Arts Program, designed to bring the practice of art to children in UM’s Children’s Hospital. She plans to carry forward her intersectional approach to healing into her career.
Self-portrait of what inspired Peggy when she was younger.
Charcoal drawing, self portrait.
“My next step is getting more people to experience the impact that art has had in my life and the people around me,” Peggy emphasizes. “There are so many avenues to achieving better health, and in some ways broadening the definition of what it means to seek better health can get more people to interact with the healthcare system and [improve] their health. I definitely want to hold on to that throughout my career because I’ve seen how that's helped people in my community.”
It takes a village
Before reaching campus, first-year students are bombarded with emails, orientations, and resources encouraging them to “network” and make new connections.
Why is networking emphasized so much? Because it truly is one of many guideposts on the promised path to success. The journey—academic, personal, or professional—is impossible to make alone.
Peggy identifies her network in all corners of her life. Advisors, friends, financial sponsors, mentors, clubmates, peers, or professors—they all played a role in her growth as an individual and pre-med student.
“I've taken opportunities to reach out to people and learn more about their career path and it has really grounded me. As much as I'd like to be self-made or have done it all on my own really, that isn’t true,” Peggy affirms. “I am who I am because of all the people who have given me advice and told me how they got to where they are.”
“I am who I am because of all the people who have given me advice and told me how they got to where they are.”
Coming to campus can be overwhelming as a first-year student, and Peggy mentions those early connections as an essential part of her journey.
“The first person I really had at UM was my academic advisor, Dr. Julie Berson-Grand,” Peggy says. “That was the first time I thought ‘wow, there's someone who's now in my corner and can help me.’"
She doesn’t only attribute the progress she’s made in her career journey to individuals. Programs and organizations like the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, LEAD Scholars program, and the LSA Opportunity Hub have been key in supporting Peggy throughout her time at UM. She identifies individual mentors, and encourages students to utilize them as resources. You can find additional pieces of advice from Peggy at the end of this article.
When it comes to her personal career exploration, Peggy picks out mentorship as the number one influencer. Join LSA Connect, the college’s networking and career mentoring platform.
“Without the mentorship, without the grants, I would not have been able to achieve any of the steps that I have,” Peggy confirms. “For someone who didn't know anything about STEM or healthcare or being a scientist, I’ve gotten so much support. I've learned from other people and the time they’ve invested in me.”
But Peggy’s efforts to build up this social capital is recent. Growing up in Corktown (Detroit), she had minimal opportunities to engage with science. When she began attending high school in Troy (Michigan), she found herself “really lost,” perceiving other students had a “better background in science.”
“I take a lot of pride in being a Detroiter at heart,” Peggy asserts. “Getting into UM and seeing how much science and STEM education has changed my life has motivated me to return to Detroit, not only as a physician providing care, but also to provide opportunities [for students] to get involved in STEM at a younger age. Anything to get kids to [understand] that this is attainable for them.”
For Peggy, this is what it’s all about:
“Ultimately, what I hope to do is make the process of finding your passion in STEM more seamless, more attainable, and financially accessible to underserved populations.”
And she’s well on her way.
What does it really mean to be a student of color at a PWI (predominantly white institution)? In one word: isolating.
“I'm so aware of how other people see me because of the experiences I've had from classrooms where people don't want to be my lab partner....to racially offensive experiences. All of that coming together it's like ‘wow, I’ve really never felt more Black than right now,’” Peggy shares.
Peggy knows the underrepresentation prevalent at UM is not unique to the institution, but a common—and systemic—issue within higher education.
For other Black students struggling to build connections, Peggy recommends community based organizations like Black Student Union.
“BSU has so many resources and so many events, and you'll get to know people in the Black community and gain a support system,” Peggy emphasizes. “With some of the unfortunate incidents that have happened on campus, the Black Student Union is a place where you can be vulnerable and talk about it.”
As Peggy makes inroads into her future career, she also picks up some challenge cards along the way. Questions like: how should I wear my hair to this interview? Or should I adjust the way I speak to better assimilate at work? Or should I share these parts of my experience in my application materials?
To answer these questions, she again turns to the mentors in her life, in this case: all of the different spaces and communities of Black women, specifically those who have obtained doctoral degrees.
“Everyone should be proud of the way they are naturally,” Peggy stresses. “I hope to not change any part of my professional persona just to fit into some idea of what I should be, or what a doctor should be. If diversity is important, then it shouldn't be perfectly curated diversity. ”
Whether it’s expressed through her love of art, her thirst for medical knowledge, her curiosity in naturopathic research, or her dedication to serve her hometown of Detroit, Peggy is committed to being authentically herself—a young Black woman and future MD who dreams in color.
Peggy’s Experiential Tips:
Advice for pre-medical/physician-scientist students:
Keep a journal/digital notes—don’t feel pressured to use it every day, but it's helpful when shadowing physicians or talking to health professionals. Pay close attention to your senses, and be as descriptive as possible. One day, you might want to convey your experiences to someone else.
Consider applying to the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). You’ll get a lot out of the program, like conducting research for academic credit. However, you do not have to go through UROP to do research. While it assists you with the process of finding a mentor, you can always find one on your own. This might be an advantage because you are able to take other classes, such as Biology 200, MCDB 300, 400, etc. for research credit.
To learn more about the research being conducted at UM, use this website. You can use Google Scholar or MLibrary to read papers authored by UM faculty, and reach out to them to talk more about their research. Look for their email addresses on MCommunity!
UM has amazing summer research opportunities. Especially if finances are a barrier to entry look here. A life-changing opportunity that I participated in was the UM-SMART Undergrad Summer Program. If you have any interest in being a physician-scientist, please apply and find more information here.
If you are interested in creative arts and medicine, consider joining ThirdSpace: Hospital Creative Arts Program!
Advice for all students:
Consider joining a Learning Community, like Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts, and participating in the Black Student Union or other historically black professional groups like the Black Undergraduate Medical Association (BUMA) or Black Undergraduate Law Association (BULA).
Consider joining the Comprehensive Studies Program—smaller classes, slower pace, and peer tutoring! I wish I had participated in it sooner, as it benefited me and so many of my friends and peers.
Apply for Scholarships. There are many but start with LSA Scholarships, like the LSA Internship Scholarship. There are also annual scholarships through Congressional Black Caucus, Taco Bell Foundation, and many more.
The Clothes Closet through the U-M Career Center gives students the opportunity to pick two to three business outfits for any professional event you may attend. The Career Center also hosts a JCPenny Suit Up event at the beginning of each academic year.