Maria Uloko

When did medicine first come on your radar, and what inspired this interest?

Medicine has always been on my radar ever since I can remember. since my hippocampus was fully formed, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor; or at least I said I wanted to be a doctor.

But I never knew what that actually looked like. I just knew that it was something I wanted to do. But I didn’t actually know what the steps were to getting into medical school or becoming a doctor.
And that is mostly b/c I had no one in my family who was a doctor. Growing up I didn’t know any physicians yet alone any Black physicians. This was until I was in high school and one of my friend’s dad’s, Dr. Michael Moncure, a trauma surgeon –let me shadow him. Dr. MICHAEL MONCURE, thank you so much, I wouldn’t be here without you.
And that was the first time where I felt like I could become a doctor. I actually saw what it looked like; I saw what it meant to go into the operating room. I saw what it meant to be a physician.

And to have someone like that in my corner really encouraging me went a long way. I will always be very grateful. So, representation matters! It matters so much. 

What challenges did you encounter getting into undergrad, as a premed, and getting into medical school (financial, family challenges, personal, health challenges, academic challenges…)

The University of Missouri in Kansas City has a 6-y accelerated bachelor’s of liberal arts and MD program. Ultimately you can get your undergrad degree and also your MD in 6 years versus 8.
It was originally started to help promote primary care in rural areas–there was a significant need for that. And it grew from there.

It is in KANSIS CITY, where I grew up. Lucky for me, my dad worked at one of the hospitals affiliated with the program, and that’s how he learned about it. He strongly encouraged me to apply slash kind of forced me to apply. I was reluctant to apply because I didn’t think I was smart enough or eliteI enough to get in. It just seemed like this prestigious place, and hyper-competitive…and full of super smart people.

I always knew I was smart, but I also played basketball, I was in choir; I did all these other things; and so I felt like I was very well-rounded, but I never thought I was excellent. I just thought that I was good at a lot of things.

My dad really stayed on me to pursue it. He was like, “you’re just as good as those kids; you should just apply.”

And then I applied, and I got in. I literally applied like like 2 weeks before the deadline. And I got in! So at the tender age of 17 I started medical school. Looking back, I knew nothing about the process or what a career in medicine looked like.
For example, I didn’t even know that I was supposed to take boards. I didn’t know what USMLE Step1 was, or Step2 or Step3.

Each time I would learn about this stuff I’d be like, ‘Another one?’ I thought I already got in…
So I was pretty clueless.

But God is good and I had great friends. When they were studying, I was studying. They would tell me about boards or other big med school milestones and I was like, ‘Oh yea, cool, cool, cool… I’m glad that we all knew about that; this is NOT my first time hearing about it, for sure.’. I laugh now because it was ALWAYS my first time hearing about it! But these were kids whose parents were physicians and so they had an insider knowledge that they were willing to share with me and I will always be grateful for that.

“You’re not a surgeon” – racism in medicine and finding relatable mentorship:

As one might assume, a 6-yr program is VERY, VERY CHALLENGING; it’s just really hard. You have to be very dedicated, and you have to be very motivated; and it can wreak psychological toll on a lot of people.
Going through that within a construct of medicine that glorifies institutionalized racism was even harder. When I decided that I wanted to go into urology, my mentor who was appointed by the [medical] school—this older white guy–flat out told me, “You’re not a surgeon; you’re not serious enough to be a surgeon.”
The thing about me is that I’m stubborn as a goat, and I love proving people wrong.
That was a dream of mine that I wanted to go into urology, and then someone actively telling me no?!–I was like, “No, we’re going to do this.”
Not that every day I would wake up and be like, “I’m gonna prove you wrong.” But it was an internal driver, the fact that in 2018, 2.2% of practicing urologists were African American/Black (2018 AUA Annual Census), and 9.2% of the urologic workforce was female in 2018.

So knowing those numbers, and seeing those statistics, Yes, it did seem daunting. But at the same time I wanted to show that I can do anything I set my mind to.
And again, God is good. I’m as stubborn as a goat; it all worked out.

It really was a need to prove people wrong. I’m very competitive; I grew up playing a ton of sports with my brothers; and being the only girl I always had to prove myself. And, I love winning– it’s truly my favorite thing.
And so, in these moments when I do win especially when I’m the underdog- it feels like the ultimate victory b/c no one thought I could do it.
After I matched, that same mentor then nominated me for a chancellor’s award, which I won.

So, the mentor who didn’t believe in me was all of a sudden like, “Oh, you’re so great” and I was like, “Yea, I know, I’ve known this. You didn’t.”
I got to put that award on my CV… so, “THANK YOU.” 

Did anyone help motivate you and mentor you along the way?

I definitely did not have a mentor during medical school. Our medical school was not set up that way. Our institution didn’t have that type of mentee-mentorship model that many other medical schools had. So if you wanted something, you kind of had to go and get it.

A Sisterhood of Selfless Support:

What did inspire me is that I had a group of women from my medical school– Tau Nu Alpha–we made up our own sorority. This group of women are all such kick-ass physicians, women, and people. They are just amazing; they’re all so motivated, and dedicated, and so whip-smart. And we were each other’s biggest support. Whenever anyone wanted to do something, or had a dream, everyone was cheering them on.

And that’s the definition of sisterhood right? Everyone is so proud of everyone’s accomplishments, and celebrates each other how much of a bad ass they are in their own right.
I was very fortunate to make these friends because not everyone has this drive to be better; or to succeed or accomplish things. And not everyone has the self-esteem or the confidence to celebrate other women. So to have found… gosh…12 other women like that, from all different walks of life, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, religious backgrounds….and we all come together in our sister circle. It’s just joy; it’s amazing. I love them.

What do you wish had been different in your journey through medical school and residency training and beyond? Or what would have made things easier for you?

Something that would’ve been easier is just not feeling like I’m the only one. I went into a field of medicine and surgery that is not diverse. They’re working on it, or so they say, but it just isn’t. The numbers don’t lie. The national meetings don’t lie.
Getting into urology was really challenging for me. It took a lot of work. In comparison to other ppl, I worked my ass off. I’m proud of the work I did, and I’m proud of how hard I worked. But I don’t know…
I can suffer, I’m a glutton for punishment, and I don’t mind as long as I finish the goal. But it shouldn’t be that hard.
The diversity numbers are ABYSMAL. Who in the world is going to pursue a career like this unless you’re absolutely crazy.

I can’t fix all of medicine. When looking at the structure you work in, you have to look at what you can actually change: I can change my one little world of urology.
I remember how hard it was to get on research papers; to find shadowing opportunities; even to ask questions about urology like, “What is urology?”

My goal is to make sure no person of color ever has that experience. I noticed that my predominantly white male colleagues who went in this field had this pathway that was relatively easy for them because their dad was a urologist; or their uncle was a urologist. And that’s why they make up a pretty good percentage of this field.

If I want to see the diversity in the field, then I have to make it easier for the kids coming up. That’s my goal. That’s what I want.

Advice for medical students:

I was the type of resident who believes, you are paying to be here; if you want to be here, and you want to participate, great. If you don’t want to be here, and you don’t want to participate, also fine. You’re literally paying to be here. You’re an adult. You made the decision to come to medical school. I will give you whatever grade you work hard for.
My favorite students were the ones who had ANY sort of interest; you didn’t have to be smart, you just had to have some sort of interest. And that does go a long way—just being enthused, even if you’re doing the bare minimum. Residents really do respond to that, or at least I did.
The residents are in charge of the medical students. So when I was a chief resident, I’d ask, What do you want to do? Are you engaged? If not, go home; if you are, then stay. My goal is to make that time worthwhile for you.

Advice for pre-meds:

I think, for any premed, middle schooler, high schooler who wants to go into medicine or a STEM field, know that YOU ARE WORTHY. Know that YOU ARE READY. Know that YOU ARE CAPABLE.
Do not look around you and compare yourself to others because if we look at the construct of these fields that you want to go into, they weren’t made for you; they weren’t created with you in mind. So of course you’re not going to feel welcome; of course you’re not going to feel worthy b/c they’re judging you off of standards that didn’t keep you in mind.

So just get rid of that; get rid of that notion. And constantly remind yourself of what you’re good at.

And whatever your dream is, whatever your goal is, work hard to get it. Don’t let people tell you no.

You can do whatever you set your mind to. I truly believe that.
There’s no imposter syndrome. There’s just systemic racism; that’s what it is.

We can all do it; we may not look like what has been portrayed as the only people who can do it. But we can all do it and be very capable and be very, very good at our jobs.

Yea! So keep working. You can do it.