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Advancing diversity: 3 healthcare experts share their career stories

The statistics are stark: People of color are vastly underrepresented in medical and scientific professions. But various programs—including ones sponsored by Johnson & Johnson—are working to help level the playing field.

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Studies show that when a patient is treated by a medical professional who looks like them, they’re more likely to trust the healthcare advice and follow recommendations. Yet in every corner of healthcare people from historically marginalized communities aren’t equally represented in the medical science workforce.
Indeed, when it comes to achieving an advanced degree and a successful career in healthcare, the playing field is far from level. School, exam fees and books are expensive, and admission requires a series of steps that can feel overwhelming to someone without a connection who can help them navigate the system.

“Lack of support and mentorship can leave a Black medical student feeling like they don’t belong,” says Jamarcus Brider, D.O., a cardiology resident preparing to begin his fellowship. “Eventually, those feelings can lead people to give up.”

Equity-focused career support and development programs are designed to address these complex, too-common barriers to professional achievement, offering mentorship, financial assistance, tutoring and invaluable networking opportunities.

In November 2020, Johnson & Johnson pledged $100 million as part of its Our Race to Health Equity initiative to help resolve the systemic health inequities that contribute to a lower standard of care for people in historically marginalized communities. This effort includes partnering with and supporting programs—such as the Scientist Mentoring & Diversity Program (SMDP) and the American College of Cardiology (ACC) Foundation’s “Change the FIELD,” initiative—that bolster the higher education and career development of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds.

This commitment to creating opportunities for young people to forge career paths that might be out of reach dates back to 1969, when six Black Johnson & Johnson employees in Chicago took over the management of and greatly expanded a job bank that served as an employment center to help place Black college graduates in professional positions. It eventually grew to become the Equitable Employment Resources Bank, and it matched Black college graduates with jobs not only at Johnson & Johnson but at other Fortune 500 companies.

For Black History Month, three medical and science professionals share how programs like these helped shape their careers.

“A Sense of Belonging Motivated Me to Keep Going”

Jamarcus Brider, D.O.

Jamarcus Brider’s journey toward becoming a cardiology fellow began, fittingly enough, in a doctor’s office.

Raised in part by his grandparents, Dr. Brider would accompany his grandfather to cardiology appointments in high school. While Dr. Brider tagged along for moral support, he began to realize that the visits also ignited an intense curiosity. “I always wanted to know more about the science—how heart disease develops and how it’s treated,” he says. “A seed was planted.”

A headshot of Jamarcus Brider, D.O. next to a photo of him and his grandfather

Dr. Brider and his grandfather (right)

But as a pre-med undergrad at a predominately white university, an advisor told Dr. Brider that he just “didn’t feel like a fit” for medical school. However, being underestimated only served to steel his resolve, and Dr. Brider went on to get his medical degree. “I wanted to prove that advisor wrong, because I knew that I had something greater in me that he obviously didn’t see.”

And he likely isn’t alone in his experience of being underestimated.

According to the ACC, just 3% of cardiologists are Black. Regardless of specialty, the number of Black male physicians hasn’t increased at all since 1940, per a 2021 UCLA study.

As a resident, Dr. Brider was accepted into ACC Foundation’s African American/Black Cohort Internal Medicine Cardiology Program, which Johnson & Johnson partners with (other ACC equity programs aid other historically underrepresented groups, including Hispanic/Latinx and LGBTQ+ interns and residents).

ACC Foundation mentors meet with mentees virtually and on-site at conferences and other professional events, tackling topics such as how to respectfully navigate the myriad microaggressions that cardiologists of color often experience at work. Dr. Brider says that his primary mentor “has been helpful in every way imaginable,” collaborating on research projects and guiding him through writing abstracts and interpreting data. Mentors also help participants navigate the fellowship application process, reviewing resumes and personal statements and holding informational programs specific to each section of the application.

Dr. Brider will begin his fellowship at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga this July. His passion lies in transplant cardiology and how to prevent congestive heart failure, the condition both of his grandfathers had. “I’d like to be able to care for patients much sooner,” he adds, to save more lives in the future.

These days, Dr. Brider mentors two interns where he works as a resident, after experiencing how transformative mentorship can be. “The ACC Foundation’s program provided a sense of belonging—which motivated me to keep going.”

“It’s Not That We Can’t Do It. It’s That There’s a Lack of Support.”

Donna Febres, M.S., Ph.D., Principal Medical Science Liaison in Rheumatology, Johnson & Johnson

A headshot of Donna Febres, M.S., Ph.D., Principal Medical Science Liaison in Rheumatology, Johnson & Johnson

Many of Donna Febres’ childhood neighbors at the Dorie Miller Houses, New York City’s first racially integrated co-op, were Black professionals. But her father, who held a biochemistry degree, wasn’t able to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.

“He was a Black man in the early 1940s,” says Febres. “He didn’t have a network or money for med school applications.”

But Febres’ father did become a successful businessman and was appointed commissioner on the Landmarks Preservation Commission for the City of New York—and he was determined to give his daughter positive role models and instill in her a sense of determination.

Febres let that feeling of possibility fuel her own career path.

After attending an underserved public elementary school, Febres was bussed to a predominately white, better-funded district, where she needed to work hard and adjust—both socially and academically. In high school, a dedicated chemistry teacher bolstered Febres’ confidence with a mantra: This is not hard. You can do this.

“That’s where my love for science really developed,” Febres says.

She went on to pursue a chemistry degree in college, where a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program funded her studies. The program prepared students from underrepresented groups to attain doctorate degrees in biomedical and behavioral sciences, offering tutoring, financial assistance and travel to conferences.

The NIH invited diverse experts to speak to our program, so we saw physicians and scientists who looked like us.
Donna Febres, M.S., Ph.D.

Crucially, Febres adds, “They invited diverse experts from the NIH and other institutions to speak to our program, so we saw physicians and scientists who looked like us.”

She was accepted to both medical school and a Ph.D. program, but based on her passion for molecular biology, Febres ultimately chose the Ph.D. program—and eventually received an American Association for Cancer Research Award for her work.

The NIH continued to provide financial support and helped Febres hone critical research skills as she earned her Ph.D. and did postdoctoral training.

Febres began her career as a medical consultant at Johnson & Johnson, and then nine years later became a Medical Science Liaison in the company’s immunology group.

“It’s not that we can’t do it,” Febres says of Black Americans’ continued underrepresentation in medical science. “It’s the lack of support. And without programs like the ones I participated in, I wouldn’t be here at Johnson & Johnson.”

In addition to her duties in the field supporting new drug research, she currently leads initiatives as part of Janssen’s Immunology Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Working Group. Its goal is to help close the racial health gap so the color of one’s skin does not determine access to care, quality of care or health outcomes.

Today, Febres visits nearby schools to speak about her career journey—showing students that scientists come from all different backgrounds.

“Application Fees Can Deter People From Applying to School at All”

Ashley Orillion, Ph.D., Principal Scientist, Janssen

Ashley Orillion had never heard of a Ph.D. before she arrived at college.

Raised well below the poverty line in South Carolina, Orillion’s high school guidance counselor tried to dissuade her from setting her sights too high. “The concept was always, ‘You could go to college, but good luck finding your own way, because there’s no support,” she recalls. Today, she’s a principal scientist in immunology translational science at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson.

A headshot of Ashley Orillion, Ph.D., Principal Scientist, Janssen next to a photo of her at work in the lab

Orillion at work in the lab (right)

Orillion always knew she wanted a career that would let her help people. The Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program scholarship supported her growth to do just that.

The McNair program is designed to prepare college students from underrepresented backgrounds—Orillion is Cajun and Hispanic and was a first-generation college student. In addition to financial aid, it provides mentorship, tutoring, and GRE training. When Orillion applied for a master’s in deaf education her mentor was there to support and guide her through every step—same goes for when she got her Ph.D.
McNair also pays for GRE and graduate school applications, an essential benefit. As Orillion puts it: “Those fees for applications and tests can derail someone from applying at all.”

Having come to love the lab environment, Orillion discovered that she wanted to study disease. While earning her Ph.D., a one-year fellowship in the Johnson & Johnson-sponsored SMDP, which pairs ethnically diverse students who are interested in a career in biotech, consumer health or medtech with industry professionals as mentors, opened a door to her career at Janssen.

Her assigned mentor helped her explore her options and ultimately land a postdoctoral fellowship at the company in 2017.

Since 2019, Orillion has worked full-time at Janssen as a translational scientist in immunology. Her current role falls on “the more exploratory side of clinical trials,” she explains, and partly entails identifying biomarkers that can inform future research. “If we can find a specific marker for a very rare disease, we can develop a clinical trial to treat those patients.” Orillion also has a leadership role in Janssen’s Immunology DE&I Working Group and is a member of the newly formed Our Race to Health Equity STEM & Scientific Collaborations and Partnerships Enduring Alliances teams.

The network she developed in the SMDP program continues to be a mutually supportive one. “There’s probably between 20 to 30 SMDP alumni at Johnson & Johnson,” Orillion says. “It’s really important to have those special connections.”

See more ways Johnson & Johnson is working to support health equity

Learn about the company’s Our Race to Health Equity initiative, which aims to help eradicate racial and social injustice as a public health threat by eliminating health inequities for people of color.

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