Champions of the Bronx

From left: Fourth-year medical students Timothy Liang and Alex Levine; fourth-year Ph.D. candidates Brenda Abdelmesih and Noelie Cayla; and fourth-year medical students Michael Yang and Kathryn Segal.

Three Einstein student groups are working for cleaner air, healthier food, and increased science literacy in the borough

By Teresa Carr

Fourth-year medical student Alex Levine jokes that he hadn’t always dreamed of becoming a doctor. What he really cared about, he says, was what made cities tick. As an undergraduate at Fordham University, he interned in the Bronx City Planning Department. “I wanted to pursue a career that was service oriented,” he says. 

After graduating with degrees in economics and Chinese, he worked in China, where he followed physicians on their daily rounds as part of his job managing a study-abroad program. It became clear to him that his future would lie in medicine. “I saw this connection between urban design and public health,” Mr. Levine says. “How factors such as walkability, public transportation, and air pollution affected well-being.” Once at Einstein, he helped create a student advocacy organization focused on improving air quality and the environment in local neighborhoods.

The opportunity to advance the health and well-being of people in the Bronx and beyond is part of what has always attracted students to Einstein. Since the College of Medicine’s earliest days, medical and graduate students have been drawn to its commitment to community service. 

Here, we highlight three projects out of the dozens that have been launched by Einstein students over the years—addressing air pollution, mentoring high school students, and improving local diets.

We saw an opportunity for a student-driven organization  to advocate for transportation and infrastructure policies that would better the lives of people in our community.
— Medical student Ali Kalam

Bronx One Policy Group

Environmental factors such as public transit, parks, and grocery stores can have a huge impact on a community’s health. For example, people with diabetes who have reliable access to transportation and nutritious food are much more likely to have good control of their disease than those who don’t, according to a study of nearly 6,000 patients in the Montefiore Health System that was published in 2021 in the Journal of Primary Care and Community Health.

During their second year of medical school, Mr. Levine and his classmate Ali Kalam discussed how government policy and urban environments affect people’s well-being. “We saw an opportunity for a student-driven organization, with roots in Einstein and Montefiore, to advocate for transportation and infrastructure policies that would better the lives of people in our community,” says Mr. Kalam, now a fourth-year student. The two recruited a handful of other students, and the Bronx One Policy Group was born.

The new group first turned its attention to helping mitigate the side effects of the Cross Bronx Expressway, which separates the South Bronx from the green spaces to the north. Pollution from the heavily trafficked expressway is one of the reasons the South Bronx has the highest rates of hospitalizations and deaths due to asthma in New York City. 

An artist’s depiction of what capping the Cross Bronx Expressway might look like, complete with large vents to scrub toxic fumes from cars that would travel below the proposed park.

The Bronx One Policy Group supports an ambitious initiative to cap the two and one-half miles of the expressway that run below street level, covering the road with parks and installing vents to scrub toxic fumes. The estimated $1 billion cost of the project would be offset by reduced healthcare costs and higher property values, according to projections from a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. “Capping the expressway would save both lives and money,” Mr. Levine says.

An architect’s model of the parks that would be built above the two and one-half miles of the expressway that run below street level.

After a year of meeting with community groups and studying the borough’s chronic-disease burden, the students presented a strong case for green infrastructure projects in their comprehensive report, The Bronx Is Building. Designed and illustrated with vibrant photos by fourth-year medical student Timothy Liang, the report has been endorsed by Montefiore’s department of family and social medicine. It was also instrumental in advocacy efforts to secure $2 million in federal funding for the Cross Bronx Expressway Study.

In partnership with Nilka Martell, founder and director of the community development organization Loving the Bronx, Mr. Levine and Mr. Liang also curated an exhibit called The Bronx Is Building: Transforming the Cross Bronx Expressway: Design + Public Health, at the Gallery of ARTFul Medicine on Montefiore’s Hutchinson Campus earlier this year.

Fourth-year Einstein medical students Timothy Liang and Alex Levine at the Bronx Is Building exhibit on Montefiore’s Hutchinson Campus. (Photo by Jason Torres)

An integral part of the group’s advocacy efforts is the production of the podcast Healthy Bronx, which hosts local community leaders, healthcare workers, and policy makers. 

“We see ourselves as a liaison between our community and Einstein,” says Nupur Shridhar, a fourth-year medical student who directs community engagement for the group. “Our role is to amplify and uplift the community’s voices and needs.”

Listen to the Podcasts

Hear more about health challenges facing the borough from the Bronx One Policy Group.

Neuroscience Graduate Students

One of the missions of the Neuroscience Graduate Student Organization (NGSO) is to showcase “the utter coolness of neuroscience,” says Jacob Ratliff, a fifth-year graduate student. NGSO members have delivered interactive demonstrations of brain anatomy to people visiting Jacobi Hospital—and even to patrons of local breweries.

But the grad students involved in the NGSO say that what they enjoy most is working with high school students in the Bronx to increase science literacy. Every winter, the group hosts Brain Awareness Week for Pelham Lab High School students, who travel to the Rose F. Kennedy Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center for hands-on learning activities, such as dissecting a sheep’s eyeball and operating a robotic claw using input recorded from a student’s muscle.

Ph.D. candidates Czarina Ramos, left, and Romana Hyde set up a sheep brain dissection work station for Pelham Lab High School students as part of Brain Awareness Week activities hosted by neuroscience graduate students at Einstein. (Photo by Ifeoma Azinge)

“I get a kick out of seeing students make connections—that recorded muscle activity can be used to control human prosthetics,” Mr. Ratliff says. “We talk to them about how there are scientists actively doing what they saw here today.”

In 2022, the NGSO and the Einstein neuroscience community formed the Pelham-Einstein Neuroscience Scholars program, a summer internship for four students selected from participants in Brain Awareness Week. High school is often a formative period in a scientist’s life, says Brenda Abdelmesih, a fourth-year graduate student. Growing up on Staten Island, she says, she never imagined a career in science. “We are exposing students in underserved communities to the idea that science really is an option for them,” she says.

Over the summer, the high school students worked on their own research projects under the mentorship of Einstein graduate and postdoctoral students. The interns also took part in enrichment sessions, where they learned how to read scientific papers and ask questions. And, because the journey to becoming a scientist can often be intimidating, they learned how to seek out and use mentors to help with the many decisions that arise in a young scientist’s life. “We wanted to help them with these so-called soft skills that are so necessary to build the resilience and confidence needed in this line of work,” says fourth-year graduate student Czarina Ramos.

Mr. Ratliff says that one of the things he likes most about science is that it focuses heavily on mentorship and training. “During every step of my career, I’ve met people willing to go out of their way to teach me something I didn’t know,” he says. NGSO outreach allows him to pay it forward, he adds, opening the door for others. “What I get out of this is helping people whom I would like to work with,” he says. “I’m training my future colleagues.”

Depending on your patients’ circumstances and what their neighborhoods are like, they might not have access to healthier options.
— Medical student Michael Yang

Food Justice and Medicine

During the pandemic, medical student Michael Yang has seen firsthand how people without access to good nutrition are at greater risk for a host of illnesses. “The pandemic has revealed in a stark way how the food we put in our bodies has a huge impact on our health,” he says. “And I’ve realized that food insecurity isn’t going away any time soon.” That’s why he and fellow medical student Kathryn Segal decided to create a group called Food Justice and Medicine at Einstein. 

When they applied for funding for their project, Heather Archer-Dyer, M.P.H., director of community health outreach for Einstein’s department of family and social medicine, remembers, she asked Mr. Yang and Ms. Segal what they meant by the term “food justice.” They told her that food pantries were just a stopgap measure for the larger, ongoing issue of food insecurity. “Mike was adamant,” Ms. Archer-Dyer recalls. “He told me, ‘We don’t need another bandage—we need to fix policy so that this problem doesn’t continue.’”

Food Justice and Medicine founders Michael Yang and Kathryn Segal, who say they were inspired to start the student group by their experiences as medical students during the pandemic. (Photo by Jason Torres)

Einstein students who are a part of Food Justice and Medicine are working with the nonprofit Moshulu Preservation Corp. on two grant-funded projects in the Bronx: creating community gardens and encouraging bodega owners to stock healthy options. The gardens showcase how accessible fresh, healthful foods can be, says Ms. Segal. For the past two years, Food Justice and Medicine has also delivered food to patients in need on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Both Ms. Segal and Mr. Yang, now fourth-year students, say they are encouraged that the students coming up after them are assuming leadership roles and expanding the group’s vision. These students plan to collect data to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of selling fruits, vegetables, and other healthy choices in local markets. And they’ve started conversations with the Corbin Hill Food Project, a Harlem-based organization that delivers food from local farms to low-income communities.

Tomatoes, strawberries, and potatoes are some of the crops grown in the community garden on the Einstein campus. (Photos by Jason Torres)

Mr. Yang, who wants to specialize in primary-care internal medicine, says that what he has learned through real-world advocacy will make him a better doctor. “You can’t just say ‘Change your diet and eat more salad’ to a patient,” he says. “A prerequisite to being a well-rounded physician is realizing that, depending on your patients’ circumstances and what their neighborhoods are like, they might not have access to healthier options.” 

Ms. Segal, who is interested in orthopedic surgery, agrees. “It’s no longer adequate just to teach students the basic science of medicine, because there are so many social factors that affect health,” she says. “To work with and advocate for our patients to the best of our abilities, we have to be able to understand their lives in all their dimensions.”

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