Featured Voices on Black History Month

Black History Month offers everyone an opportunity to reflect on the Black experience as part and parcel of American history. It is an opportunity to celebrate what African Americans have accomplished but also to pause and to acknowledge the work that is yet to be done.

We spoke with several Black CUIMC faculty members and asked them what Black History Month means to them.

Michelle W. Bell, MD

Michelle Bell, MD

Michelle W. Bell, MD, is assistant professor of neurology in the Division of Epilepsy and Sleep at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Bell serves as the director of the adult neurology residency program and in 2021 she received the Richard Mayeux Award for her contributions to the clinical, research, and/or educational missions of the Department of Neurology.

Patient care and the training of young neurologists are Bell’s top priorities. “The opportunity to be a lifelong student is a great privilege. My mission as a faculty member and as an educator is to nurture a sense of intellectual adventure in every member of our academic community.”

What drew Bell to neurology? “The complexity of the nervous system and the bravery of the patients.” And perhaps something inexplicable, too. “When I talk to prospective doctors, I advise them to expose themselves to a variety of clinical settings and specialties. And if they want, they can analyze the pros and cons. But in the end, choosing a specialty is like falling in love.”

Bell takes an expansive view of the significance of Black History Month. “To me, Black History Month is about hope. Hope that in my lifetime and that of my children, we as a human race will make further progress towards inclusivity and justice for all.”

Heather Butts, JD, MPH

Heather Butts, MPH

Watch our interview with Heather Butts on Instagram.

Heather Butts, JD, MPH, is an assistant professor of health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health, where she teaches a course titled, “Untold Stories in U.S. Health Policy History.”  “Untold Stories” features the lives and careers of those whose stories remain unrecognized or not fully told. This ranges from 19th and 20th century Black Americans who advanced health care for their communities and for the nation to those in other parts of the world whose stories are largely unknown in the United States.

What drew Butts to public health policy? “I wanted to work in a field that would bring together law, ethics, governance, and well-being. I also had excellent mentors who guided me when I was an undergraduate student and then later when I was a graduate student.”

And now that Butts is in a position to guide public health students, what advice does she offer? “Don’t let go of your dreams. And find a mentor who can help you pursue your goals and realize your dreams.

“Black History Month, to me, is the opportunity to celebrate the lives of individuals whose stories have not been written and whose songs have not been sung.”

Read more about Professor Butts' work here.

Ashley Graham-Perel, EdD

Ashley Graham-Perel, EdD

Watch our interview with Ashley Graham-Perel on Instagram.

Ashley Graham-Perel, EdD, is assistant professor at the School of Nursing. Graham-Perel is a registered nurse and is triple board-certified in medical surgical nursing, in nursing professional development, and as a nurse educator. 

Graham-Perel’s research “focuses on the lack of diversity among nursing school faculties, with special attention to the recruitment, retention, and ultimate success of Black nursing students.”

As an educator, Graham-Perel “is dedicated to advancing nursing and science. I’m dedicated to learning from my students and I'm dedicated to challenging and supporting them as they become the nurse leaders of tomorrow.”

What drew Graham-Perel to nursing? “Knowing that there was a profession where people are closely tied to the patients and where caring was involved. I knew nothing about the pay or the hours. I just knew that there was care, and I wanted to be a part of that.

“The advice that I would give a young Black student pursuing a nursing career is to know that you can do it and to know that you belong here. I encourage you to find a mentor who can guide you from the beginning of applying to nursing school all the way to graduation and beyond.

“To me, Black History Month means several things. It's a time for celebration and recognition, an awareness of the contributions of Black and African American people to this nation and to the world. While I appreciate the recognition and celebrations of February's Black History Month, I do not confine this to once a year. Black history is a part of my identity and I celebrate it all year long."

Michael McKenzie, DDS

Michael McKenzie, DDS

Michael McKenzie, DDS, an assistant professor of dental medicine at the College of Dental Medicine, was drawn to dentistry by visits with his Uncle Mike, also a dentist. “I saw that he was in the health care field doing things that he loved to do, and I saw that he was doing things beyond dentistry on his terms, and that was very appealing to me.

“What I enjoy most about my work is completing treatment plans. When we've been working with the patient over the course of several visits, we’ll get to the point where we can say the hard part is over. It's just check-ups now. It's incredibly fulfilling. It's a real ‘We did it, Joe’ moment.

“When I meet a patient for the first time, I want them to see three things. One, that I'm listening to them and I’m sensitive to and not dismissive of their principal concerns. Two, that I'm efficient and results oriented. And three, that I take pride in being good at what I do. 

“I have two pieces of advice for young, prospective Black dental students. The first is to do your research about the field. It is a significant investment of time, effort, and money to become a dentist. And the work is really about doing high precision procedures quickly and painlessly. The second piece of advice is to just believe in yourself. Trust that you've earned your place in the dental school, even though it's really hard, and trust that everyone else is in the same boat.

“I think all of us, each and every one of us, is better off when we understand the historical context of how we've come to be where we are. And Black History Month is a very specific time to really focus on the Blackness of it, to look at our historical triumphs and celebrate them and revel in them, and to look at our historical setbacks and learn from them.”

Yvon Woappi, PhD

Yvon Woappi, PhD

Watch our interview with Yvon Woappi on Instagram.

Yvon Woappi, PhD, is assistant professor in the Department of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics and the Department of Biomedical Engineering and is the Herbert and Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Dermatology. Woappi’s research focuses on how tissues, after sustaining a wound, heal themselves. “We want to understand regeneration and how cells of distinct embryonic origins work together and orchestrate the process of healing of tissue,” Woappi says.

What drew Woappi to biomedical science? “I was drawn to science and medicine by an innate desire to understand the natural world. And I also had an incredibly forward-thinking father, a physicist, who would incorporate science into our play time. And so, by the age of 5 or 6, I had fallen in love with the natural world.

“The advice I would give to a young Black student with an interest in pursuing a career in my field is to take their ideas seriously and to ensure that they write down every idea that comes to their mind. And to guard those ideas very tightly to ensure that society or their environment does not negatively influence their creativity and their quest to understand the world.

“Black History Month, to me, is an opportunity to commemorate the contributions made by Black Americans here in America and abroad. But it’s also an opportunity to showcase American excellence more broadly by highlighting a group of people who have contributed so much to society.”

Read more about Woappi and how his research is related to cancer.