Upstate News

June 15, 2009
Darryl Geddes 315 464-4828

Upstate Medical University student wins coveted minority scholar award

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Kasandra Scales, a medical student at Upstate Medical University, has been selected as one of only 12 medical students nationwide to receive the American Medical Association Foundation Minority Scholar Award.

Scales is the first Upstate student ever to receive the $10,000 scholarship.

The AMA Foundation awards recognize scholastic achievement, financial need and personal commitment to improving minority health. First- or second-year medical students from groups defined as historically underrepresented in the medical profession are eligible.

Less than seven percent of U.S. physicians come from those groups — African-American/Black, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native and Hispanic/Latino, according to the AMA Foundation.

Before coming to Upstate, Scales, a native of Detroit, Mich., received a bachelor’s degree in human physiology from Michigan State University.

The honor topped off a hectic year of medical school for Scales. “Second year was very stressful, so this was a nice surprise,” she said.

She then spent a year working for the Delta Research and Educational Foundation, a Washington, D.C. not-for-profit organization supporting scholastic achievement, public service programs and research initiatives for African-American women.

Scales traveled the country teaching African-American parents how to spark their children’s interest in science, technology, engineering and math by using items commonly found in the home.

Her interest in pursuing a career in medicine, however, goes back to the 11th grade, when her father suffered a heart attack.

“Not being able to help was problematic for me,” Scales said. “I said next time I want to be able to help.”

Earlier this year, Scales’ father fell ill and she was able to advocate for him and coordinate his care. “Even though I’m a second-year medical student, I was able to have that perspective and ask the right questions,” she said. “That felt good. It reminded me of the time I wasn’t able to help.”

While she was working for the Delta Foundation, Scales made a list of her medical career options. Her research led her to Master of Public Health programs.

“I like to fight for marginalized populations, and I read the mission statements and thought, ?That’s what I want to do,’”Scales said. “I still wanted to do medicine, but I wanted to have a skill set that would take it a step further.”

Scales enrolled in Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health in 2005. During a “meet and greet” at the school, the talk turned to the devastation in the Gulf Coast caused that week by Hurricane Katrina. A faculty advisor asked Scales, “What can you do about that?”

It wasn’t a rhetorical question, and Scales indeed did something. While working toward her MPH — which she received in 2007 — Scales founded Gulf Coast Recovers, a community-based initiative aimed at helping survivors of Katrina.

Her MPH master’s thesis, “After the Rain: Celebrating Memories and Supporting Mental Health,” was a traveling exhibit of photographs and narratives. The idea was to “create a safe space for survivors, family, and friends to commemorate and express their grief for their losses,” according to the group’s web site,

In 2007, Gulf Coast Recovers became the first student organization at Columbia to win the university’s John and Kathleen Gorman Public Health Humanitarian Award. The award is traditionally given to a student for commitment to caring for individuals and communities, and in advancing human rights and values in public health.

Scales enrolled in Upstate’s College of Medicine that year, and is leaning toward a career in primary care ? inspired by her volunteer work at the Amaus Clinic in Syracuse for the uninsured and underinsured.

Scales wants to balance the treatment and progress of individual patients with the broader task of improving the health of the community. “I want to use the skills my MPH degree offers,” she said.

Where Scales will use her skills is yet to be determined, but it will be a place with “an underserved population that needs quality health care,” she said. “That’s where I want to set up.”

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