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Department of Dermatology, Mayo Clinic
Assistant professor of dermatology and laboratory medicine and pathologyVIEW PROFILE
Yemi Sokumbi, M.D. (MED ’09, I1 ’10, DERM ’13), has a mind of her own. She came to the U.S. from Nigeria as a teenager without her parents and made her way, creating her own narrative and ignoring limitations others tried to impose on her. She describes the phone call communicating her acceptance to Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine as life-changing and her training experience at Mayo as supportive. “They believed in me more than I believed in myself,” she says. After taking a position at another institution for five years, she returned to Mayo Clinic when an opportunity arose — describing her loyalty to Mayo as extraordinary. Today she’s involved in helping to increase diversity in dermatology trainees — eager to pay forward the opportunities and support she had.
“From where I came from, my story could have been written a lot differently. A little immigrant moves to a new country, new culture, new weather and starts a whole new life. I succeeded despite the odds. I thrived beyond measure and made it to the other end. My medical degree was a door-opener to the amazing things I get to do.”
I’m from Lagos, Nigeria. My sister and I moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where we had relatives, when I was 17. Our parents stayed behind in Nigeria; they wanted us to have more opportunities than we’d have in Nigeria. I had three jobs in college and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. Having to start over and make my way in a new country helped me become resilient, which has served me well throughout my career.
My mom was a nurse. In Nigeria, access to health care is a novelty — minor illnesses can lead to death. I always loved the sciences and enjoyed visiting my mom at the hospital. She told me if I worked really hard, one day I could be a nurse like her. I asked why I couldn’t be a physician. She hadn’t even considered that as a possibility. Later, when I was considering medical school, she told me it’s hard to get into medical school and even harder when you’re an immigrant. My mom thought society could put limits on what I could do. I’m glad I didn’t listen to her.
I was determined to change the narrative. I never let people tell me what I can or can’t do or limit my potential.
Eventually, my parents moved to Minnesota. My mom retired from nursing. My dad died due to complications from high blood pressure six months before I graduated from medical school and got married. I was in the middle of applying for residency and canceled my interviews. I took a short leave of absence from medical school, and Mayo gave me the emotional space to heal. I decided I wanted to continue on the path I was on.
Today, my mom tells everyone that her daughter is a successful doctor. She also tells them that I didn’t listen to anyone who tried to put boundaries on my dreams!
I applied to Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine and the University of Minnesota medical school, among others. I was accepted at a number of schools before I interviewed at Mayo. My now-husband drove me to my interview at Mayo, and I told him it would mean the world to me if I got accepted — it would be the culmination of all of my dreams coming true. Within a couple of weeks, I got the life-changing call from Barbara Jordan (administrator in the Office of Diversity, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science). She told me I was accepted, and I screamed. When she told me I was offered a full tuition scholarship, I screamed even louder. I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity.
As a medical student, I could imagine myself in every specialty I rotated in. Someone told me if you enjoy everything, you should try dermatology. On the first day of dermatology rotation, I realized it was the one for me. You get to see kids and adults and do surgery and pathology.
Dermatology is the second least diverse specialty, after orthopedics. I’m involved with initiatives of the American Academy of Dermatology to encourage diverse applicants in our specialty. I want to help diverse students who are interested in dermatology.
I had incredible support and unbelievable teachers who invested in me beyond my imagination. They believed in me more than I believed in myself. When I teach students and trainees, I aim to do the same.
I’ve had many wonderful mentors and teachers during my time at Mayo. Two of them instrumental in my return to Mayo were Mark Davis, M.D. (I ’93, DERM ’97, chair, Department of Dermatology, Mayo Clinic in Rochester) and Alison Bruce, M.B., Ch.B. (I1 ’97, DERM ’00, chair, Department of Dermatology, Mayo Clinic in Florida). Dr. Bruce was the Dermatology Residency Program director in Rochester when I trained.
After my fellowship in dermatopathology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, I accepted a position as director of dermatopathology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. At the time, Mayo didn’t have any dermatopathology openings. I wanted to remain in academic medicine, and it was a great opportunity to build a program. In the five years I was there, I grew the program and recruited others. I proved to myself that I could make it in the world without the backdrop and support of Mayo Clinic. I was able to take the primary value of Mayo Clinic — the needs of the patient come first — and share it with another institution in the Midwest.
Then when the opportunity arose to be part of the growth of the dermatology department and dermatopathology program at Mayo Clinic in Florida, Drs. Davis and Bruce reached out to me. I was happy in my position, but I’m extraordinarily loyal to Mayo Clinic. Mayo has given me so much, and I want to help move its vision forward.
I love being back in the Mayo Clinic family and am excited about the potential for growth in my new position. My family loves the Florida weather.
Getting my medical degree. From where I came from, my story could have been written a lot differently. A little immigrant moves to a new country, new culture, new weather and starts a whole new life. I succeeded despite the odds. I thrived beyond measure and made it to the other end. My medical degree was a door-opener to the amazing things I get to do.
Take advantage of the wonderful resource of physicians and scientists at Mayo Clinic who are there to pour their knowledge and experience into you. You’re in a privileged position to learn from the best teachers at the best institution.
Be grateful — it affects your attitude to the ups and downs of training. Be resilient; it helps you persevere in challenging times.
My husband and I have a daughter who is 7 and a son who is 3. They center me. I enjoy family time and travel. We’re going to Nigeria in 2020 so my children can see where I came from and how far I’ve come. I also enjoy “reading” audiobooks.
See past New Chapter stories here.