CUIMC Celebrates AAPI Heritage Month
Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is observed annually in May to celebrate the contributions that Americans of Asian and Pacific Island descent have made to American history, society, and culture in the United States.
To help celebrate, CUIMC News is spotlighting the stories and achievements of several AAPI staff and faculty at CUIMC.
Read more about Saleha Ahmed, director for human resources and academic affairs in the Department of Surgery in the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons; Merlin Chowkwanyun, PhD, the Donald Gemson Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences in the Mailman School of Public Health; Christine Hsu Rohde, MD, MPH, professor of surgery in VP&S; Jingjing Shang, PhD, RN, professor in the School of Nursing; Ye Jennifer Zhang, MS, business intelligence analyst in the College of Dental Medicine; and Jacky Chen, MHA, project manager in quality and patient safety for ColumbiaDoctors.
For almost four years, Saleha Ahmed has been the director for human resources and academic affairs for the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons Department of Surgery. She also is the co-president of CUIMC's AAPI Employee Resource Group.
Ask Saleha Ahmed what she likes best about her job at Columbia and she will tell you it’s the personal connections she has with the people at Columbia.
“Even though Columbia is a very large place, because of the connections you can have with people across the spectrum, it feels more neighborly,” she says. “You could be talking to the vice dean in one moment and then a medical student the next. There's always some kind of collaboration that has to happen and the accessibility to the faculty and to the leadership is phenomenal. You don't really get that at a lot of other places.”
Merlin Chowkwanyun, PhD
As a historian in the Mailman School of Public Health, Merlin Chowkwanyun, PhD, acknowledges that academically he is an odd duck: “I am surrounded by statisticians and epidemiologists and the dominant language is the language of risk ratios and quantitative modeling."
Like many Asian Americans, Chowkwanyun has experienced an uptake in hostile behavior and even violence. The behaviors are not new to the pandemic and don’t only occur out in the street. “I think a lot of Asian academics have experienced stereotyping about our demeanor. I noticed early in my career, I would get very aggressive questions during my conference presentations, and I thought, this is someone picking on the quiet Asian kid,” Chowkwanyun says. “So I adopted a public speaking style that's extremely loud and assertive, so that they knew they couldn't mess with me. It's not who I really am at all.”
Christine Hsu Rohde, MD, MPH
As far back as Christine Hsu Rohde, MD, MPH, remembers, she wanted to do things that people told her she couldn’t.
“My grandmother was a nurse in Taiwan, when girls didn't become doctors, they became nurses,” Rohde says. “But she would always tell me I could be anything I wanted to be, and it was great to have that support from my grandmother. As a child, I never knew of any women who became surgeons, so that just seemed like the kind of thing I wanted to do.”
Rohde is now a reconstructive plastic surgeon at Columbia, chief of microvascular services, and vice chair for faculty development and diversity in the Department of Surgery in the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Jingjing Shang, PhD, RN
After earning a PhD in nursing at Johns Hopkins University, Jingjing Shang, joined Columbia in 2011 as a professor in the School of Nursing, where she conducts research in infection control and prevention in home care settings.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Shang decided to assess how prepared home health care agencies in the United States were, and her study shed light on the problems this crucial sector experienced.
“Though most agencies had planned for an infectious disease outbreak,” Shang says, “this sector had not received the same attention that hospitals and nursing homes did and were having more difficulty procuring PPE. This is of great concern, because home health clinicians take care of the most vulnerable population and are at high risk for self-exposure.”
Ye Jennifer Zhang, MS
As a business intelligence analyst in the College of Dental Medicine, Ye Jennifer Zhang helps to collect and analyze all the data the school collects on student performance, clinic use, and finances.
“We put the data into tables and reports that can be understood and evaluated by other people in the school," Zhang says. "For students, for example, we report on their productivity: how many procedures they do, what kinds of procedures, how many patients they see.” The students can see their data and the faculty also learn which students need a helping hand.
“The best part of my job is when one of our reports helps a student in their training or an administrator make a decision,” Zhang says. “That's really rewarding.”
Jacky Chen, MHA
(Originally published in Health Matters)
Inspired by how his immigrant parents came to the United States from China and made a successful life for themselves and their three children, Jacky Chen wanted to give back to his country. In college, he enlisted in the military with the hope of becoming an Army physician.
Chen was training to deploy to Afghanistan when he suffered a traumatic brain injury from an accident. “I am now a disabled veteran, but I was ready to go anywhere to protect our country,” he says. After leaving the military, he decided to pursue a master’s degree in health administration and dedicated himself to serving patients at an administrative level. Today, he is a project manager in quality and patient safety for ColumbiaDoctors, working closely with NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the Ambulatory Care Network.
Despite his service to the country, Chen has always had to prove that he belongs. “People still look at me as an outsider, assuming I don’t speak English, or tell me, ‘Wow, your English is great,’” he says. “If I talk about my military service, sometimes people will treat me a little bit better. But I have to go that extra mile.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, that shunning has been magnified. He has faced verbal assaults at stores and in the subway. It has moved him to speak up—and recall the values of the country he was ready to defend. “I truly believe in America and that we’re a great country,” he says. “But COVID has really put a spotlight on racism and discrimination against Asian Americans. When it’s hard to keep the faith, I remember the good people. The people who reach out to me to ask, ‘How are you doing?’, the people who spread awareness, and those who are willing to have these conversations. And that’s what keeps me hopeful that we can create a cultural shift. Ultimately history has shown that we do move forward.”