Peek is the Ellen H. Block Professor for Health Justice and Associate Director of the Chicago Center for Diabetes Translational Research.
Dr. Monica Peek, Ellen H. Block Professor for Health Justice in the Department of Medicine and Associate Director of the Chicago Center for Diabetes Translational Research, was elected Oct. 17 to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) for her work in the fight against health disparities.
The National Academy is renowned for bringing together the sharpest minds in the world and bringing them to the fore for advancements in their respective fields. The private, not-for-profit institution that advises the nation and the international community on measures to improve health and is highly selective, electing only 100 new people a year. Being elected is considered one of the highest honors in the medical field.
Peek describes her work on health equity as pursuing a better understanding of why life in the disadvantaged community of Hyde Park is not as stable as that of people from affluent backgrounds. She is actively trying to assess and create solutions to change the tide to find out “what we can do to change this, so that everyone, regardless of their social identity, has equal access to the goods and resources that contribute to promote health”. , and [everyone] is free [from] barriers [that] society has put before them [and that] are within their communities as they try to make their way to health
Peek’s interest in addressing health care disparities stems from his background in medicine, which began at a young age. Peek shares that it was a hobby of her mother to collect little bells when she was growing up, and it was one of her earliest memories related to caring for others when they got sick. “I knew I liked taking care of people. And so whenever someone in my family got sick, my mom used to pick up little bells, and so I would spring into action, ring the little bell so they would ring, you know, if they needed anything,” Peek said. “I was like their little nurse. So, I loved that role of taking care of people when they were sick, and that, to me, was like being a doctor.
Born just four years after the end of Jim Crow laws in the South, Peek recognized that her choices in pursuing a professional career were largely framed by the circumstances in which she was raised. With parents who were first-generation college students, Peek found that her path was largely guided by her strong sense of self and instinct that she wanted above all else to serve those in need.
“Both my parents were super dedicated to raising [and] became teachers because they saw education as one of the ways black people could free themselves from oppression and structural racism,” Peek said. “This framework of justice and freedom for people who looked like me was going to have to work its way into my life’s work. And so, once I decided I was going to be a doctor, I had to try to figure out how I was going to try to put those two things together.
Peek shared that despite being acutely aware of all the history going on around her, her father, an African-American history teacher, played a big role in making sure she didn’t. never internalize the negative stereotypes that surround him.
“By teaching us not to fear the things we might otherwise fear if I hadn’t been exposed to those [stereotypes] at a young age, and so I didn’t know that women weren’t supposed to be interested in science and [that] Black women were seen as inferior because my parents made sure they weren’t things I internalized,” Peek said.
She mentioned that the dogs in her family growing up were always German Shepherds and often named after African countries and tribes. Looking back, Peek sees this as an effort by his father to alleviate any fears his children might have of a breed associated with police dogs, which he had seen attacking black people during his lifetime.
So while navigating this unfamiliar career path, Peek set her sights on earning a master’s degree in public health (MPH) from Johns Hopkins during a gap year from medical school. After completing the course in three shifts instead of the usual four, she left with a better idea of the landscape of the medical field as well as the direction in which to start channeling her interests when she returned to medical school.
“It just kind of ‘brightened the room’ a bit. I could see what was in the room, and [when I went] back in med school, I could just see more of what was around me and what was possible,” she said.
This quickly became the blueprint for Peek’s journey to success: cutting back on the skills she found she needed to further her research and continuing to look for opportunities to do so.
Additionally, Peek explains that she has made it a priority to continue to be a maverick for social change in her field by maintaining the truest version of herself when communicating with others, while unafraid to hold other professionals accountable when necessary on matters of racism, no matter what his resume entails.
“Now they finally all fit together to be the kind of person I want to be. And yes, I have heroes and ‘she’-roes. But I’ve also forged a path that is unique to me, it’s been very important to me to be an advocate and not only write articles and grants but also write opinion pieces and blogs, use traditional media and social media as a place of social change,” Peek said.
Although Peek’s professional life is what she is most recognized for, she never shy away from showing her pride in being a loving and devoted mother to her children.
“There’s no way I want to have a life that doesn’t include my job because that’s what I chose as the description of who I am. This is me as I present myself to the world , but there’s no way I want my life without my kids. They add a dimension to your life that you couldn’t describe before you had them,” Peek said.
For those in medicine or any professional career, Peek said, “Don’t pass up the beauty of the natural stages of life because you’re a doctor. You can do all the things you’re supposed to do as a human being and that makes you a better doctor for it.
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