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  • Writer's pictureAshley Winkfield

Living Legends: Dr. Kafui Dzirasa

A Model Mentor

Dr. Kafui Dzirasa is a psychiatrist, Associate Professor at Duke University, husband to our first guest Dr. Erikka Dzirasa, and a long-time friend and colleague of Dr. Karen Winkfield. Dr. Dzirasa was an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he received a Meyerhoff Scholarship. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in 2001. He earned a PhD in neurobiology from Duke University in 2007. He was awarded the Duke University Somjen Award for Outstanding Dissertation Thesis. He was the first African-American student to graduate with a doctorate in neurobiology from Duke and the first Meyerhoff Scholar to earn a PhD, making him #theFirst.

Here are Dr. Karen's thoughts on him:

"Dr. Dzirasa recently gave a lecture at Vanderbilt University, and then I invited him to speak to all the HBCUs in Nashville. This man is brilliant. He was talking about his career path and now I understand kind of why he is the way he is - He's always been surrounded by people who've always been on the cutting edge.

He has always had the mindset that there's no limitations except what you put on yourself.

In his talk he said, "The whole point of science is is discovering or uncovering what's already there and it's a very different mindset from medicine. In medicine, everything's evidence based. It's what do you know and how do you apply that. But in science, everything is already there." So we live with this premise of "there's all these amazing things out there, we just need to be innovative in how we figuring out and discovering where they are and how they work."

The reason why his talk was so fascinating to me is because he talked about his failures. That's a hard thing in medicine. In medicine, we're trained that failure is not an option. "See One. Do one. Teach One. There's this rigidity. And in some ways it's necessary in order to have a standard. But in many ways, it could be stifling those of us who have come up in that educational system. It makes the standard perfection and makes people risk averse. He talked about the fact that (as a student!) he was writing all these grants and kept getting turned down, but he was given the gift of having people who always supported him and told him he could do it. He thrived in that, even when he was getting his grants rejected, it didn't matter. There were always people who were supporting him and pouring into him. Because of this, he knew no

boundaries. He was willing to knock on doors and he was exposed to people who thought outside the box; who said "hey, you know, we're gonna do this and we're gonna make this happen and there's no limits". He talked about the importance making make mentorship easy by being present. Yes, he was willing to knock on people's doors, but when they said, oh, I've got 10 minutes you know can you can you be at my office tomorrow" he was going to be at their office. He made himself, highly accessible. And by doing that he put himself in the presence of greatness and they appreciated that. Because he was always available when his name came up, you know he was always being called upon. They got to see his work they got to understand who he was and how he taught, and it opened up so many doors for him. It's just a fascinating journey.

"People think mentorship should be linear. No, it's exponential." - Dr. Kafui Dzirasa

He's all about making sure that his mentees have that same mentality. He talked about the importance of building pipeline and how a lot of people don't want to do the groundwork. He believes in mentorship so much that he wrote into his residency contract that they would send him back to his alma mater twice a month. So he went back to Maryland University of Maryland, to the Meyerhoff scholars and he started bringing them into his lab. And so he now has this pipeline of Meyerhoff scholars from all these other places. And he said, "you have to put in the groundwork. Initially it starts off really slow. People think mentorship should be linear. No, it's exponential." You start with the groundwork, and then you watch your mentees that do all of these incredible things and then they know about the pipeline so they're helping you build the pipeline. He's actually mentored over 60 people already through his lab."

Dr. Kafui Dzirasa has been recognized for his dedication to improving diversity within the academic community, and he founded the Association of Underrepresented Minority Fellows in 2007. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Student Medical Association, which looks to eradicate health disparities. He continues to be a mentor for the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program.

Learn more about Dr. Dzirasa in this video of him for "Black Men White Coats"

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