Inspired for Life: Graduates Share Stories

From left: Sophie Balk, M.D., Edward Burns, M.D., Allison Ludwig, M.D., and Juan Robles, M.D.
By Gary Goldenberg

Many of the virtues that draw students to Einstein—its outstanding scientific research and commitment to social justice, for example—appeal also to its graduates, with some deciding to stay and spend their careers in the Bronx. On the following pages, four Einstein grads from across the years describe their time as medical students, residents, and physicians and tell how their experiences have shaped who they are today.

Sophie Julia Balk, M.D.

Class of 1974

Dr. Balk, who was born in England and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, graduated from Einstein in 1974 and completed a residency in pediatrics at Montefiore in 1977. After two years of serving in the National Health Service Corps in East Harlem, she joined the Einstein faculty in 1979, where she is now a professor of pediatrics and an attending physician at Montefiore’s Comprehensive Family Care Center. She has long studied and taught about how environmental factors affect children’s health.

As a politically active child of the ’60s, I wanted to make a difference, and Einstein and Montefiore turned out to be the ideal place to do so.
— Sophie Julia Balk, M.D.

“Both of my parents were doctors and Holocaust survivors. After the war, they relocated from Poland to Manhattan’s Upper West Side and dedicated their careers to community and public health. As a politically active child of the ’60s, I wanted to make a difference, and Einstein and Montefiore turned out to be the ideal place to do so. 

One part of the institution’s mission has been to care for everyone in its community, with an emphasis on people who are underserved. I appreciate that mission even more today, 50 years later. In my case, caring for children and adolescents and trying to ensure a better planet are good things to devote your life to. 

Of course, some things have changed since I first came here. Back then, there were few women in medicine—just 18 out of 150 in my class. It wasn’t easy for us, but that’s just how it was. And I had two children during my residency, with only 18 days of maternity leave with my first son. Fortunately, it’s better for women now—here and elsewhere. 

Another change is that students are much more diverse. They tend to be older, and they come here after doing gap years or research or getting other degrees—I’m amazed to hear what some of them have done. 

Sure, there have been ups and downs, but I’ve had a great combination of academic and clinical work, along with wonderful colleagues and supportive leaders. Being a pediatrician and pediatric educator is a privilege. It’s part of my identity.”

Edward Burns, M.D.

Class of 1976

Dr. Burns, who was born and raised in the Bronx, graduated from Einstein in 1976 and then completed a residency in medicine and a fellowship in hematology and medicine at Montefiore. He joined the faculty in 1981 and is now the executive dean and a professor of pathology and of oncology. In 2015, he was awarded Einstein’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Teaching.

When people ask why I’ve stayed here so long, the answer is simple: It’s the people.
— Edward Burns, M.D.

“After I got hooked on science in high school, I made a visit to Einstein, walking from lab to lab, asking researchers if they would take on an aspiring scientist over the summer. One did: Sam Seifter, the chair of biochemistry. He showed me that you could be more than a doctor or a scientist. He was a defender of the poor and the economically and socially underserved—a great role model.

That experience was a major reason I applied to Einstein. Also, it was open to everyone. Quotas were commonplace at the time, but at Einstein there were no quotas for women, Jews, Blacks, or anyone else. Both of my parents were Holocaust survivors, and fighting racism was the most important thing in my life. 

I went to Montefiore for my residency for the same reason—its commitment to social justice—as well as for the opportunity to do research.

My only break from Einstein and Montefiore was a postdoctoral fellowship at New York University. It was wonderful, much like here, only it was in Manhattan and they dressed better! NYU offered me a position, but Einstein asked me to come back, and I’m glad I did. Early on, I attended to some of the first AIDS patients, when all we could offer was symptomatic relief. It really wasn’t medicine. It was human care. 

One of my tasks in the dean’s office is promoting diversity enhancement, which includes summer research internships for high schoolers. What I had done informally 50 years ago is now being done formally.

When people ask why I’ve stayed here so long, the answer is simple: It’s the people. This place attracts good people, from the security guards to the researchers to the teachers to the administrators. Everybody genuinely supports the mission of the institution.”

Edward Burns, M.D., across the years: From left, holding a ceremonial mace at an Einstein commencement; as an Einstein and Montefiore physician in the 1980s; in an Einstein research lab in the 1970s; and as a boy in the 1960s.

Allison Ludwig, M.D.

Class of 2004

Dr. Ludwig was raised in New Jersey and graduated from Einstein in 2004. She completed a residency in internal medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She joined the Einstein faculty in 2007, where she is now the associate dean for student affairs and an associate professor of medicine. She is also a hospitalist at Jacobi Medical Center.

The heart of Einstein has not changed. It remains a place where camaraderie drives progress. I consider myself lucky to call my colleagues friends.
— Allison Ludwig, M.D.

“You could say that my path to Einstein began when I was 5 years old. My father, an Einstein grad, would take me on his weekend rounds. I’d wear a toy stethoscope and one of his white coats. I loved ‘seeing’ patients.

When it came time for me to apply to medical school, Einstein was at the top of my list, partly because it’s in New York City. I also got the feeling that there was great camaraderie. I wanted a school with a focus on learning, not on competition. Einstein felt like family to me.

One of my first clinical experiences was in a methadone clinic in the South Bronx. I can’t say that working with marginalized populations was what drew me to Einstein, but working with the underserved quickly became my passion. My favorite place to do rotations was Jacobi, a city hospital and Einstein affiliate. My father had said that it’s the type of place where you want to train, where you could really make a difference in patients’ lives. I took that advice to heart and have made it my clinical home.

I went to San Francisco for an adventure, and UCSF allowed me to continue working with marginalized populations while being trained by world-class physicians. But ultimately, I missed my family, which included Einstein. 

Although I had offers at other hospitals in New York City, I chose a position at Montefiore for the opportunity to teach. Most teaching hospitalists are allowed to teach for three months a year, if that. But Montefiore gave me six months right off. I moved to Jacobi after a year when I was given an opportunity to expand my teaching role both with the residents and with the Einstein medical students.  

It has been just over 20 years since I first came here, and much has changed. First, there are closer ties between the medical school and Montefiore, which is wonderful. As for the students, what they’ve accomplished before even coming here is mind-boggling. They inspire me every day. At the same time, the heart of Einstein has not changed. It remains a place where camaraderie drives progress. I consider myself lucky to call my colleagues friends.”

Allison Ludwig, M.D., with her Einstein classmates; at right she wears an “Einstein Strong” T-shirt as she holds her baby daughter.

Juan Robles, M.D.

Class of 2011

A native of Honduras, Dr. Robles graduated from Einstein in 2011 and completed a residency in family medicine at Montefiore in 2014. He is currently an assistant professor of family and social medicine at Einstein and an attending physician in the Family Health Center at Montefiore. In 2021, he was selected as Mentor of the Year by the national Latino Medical Student Association.

I co-founded the Bronx Community Health Leaders program so that others could follow in my footsteps.
— Juan Robles, M.D.

“When I was growing up in the Bronx, our family pediatrician at Montefiore was Dr. Alan Shapiro, who is still a member of the faculty and is now a colleague and friend. I was taken by his compassion and his interest in my family’s story. I wanted to be just like him and to study at Einstein—even though that goal seemed unattainable. I didn’t get accepted to Einstein the first time I applied. I wasn’t ready. I earned a master’s, taught high school, and did biomedical research and community service. That made me a better individual and a stronger applicant.

There weren’t many students at Einstein who looked like me, but from the outset everyone was so welcoming. I was embraced for who I was. My clinical rotations at Montefiore convinced me that this was the right place for me, where I could reach my fullest potential. 

I considered many residency programs, all with similar missions, but Montefiore’s felt the most compelling, with its many services for the underserved. That commitment hasn’t changed. You could see this most recently in the hospital’s response to the pandemic. No matter how bad it got, we didn’t give up on caring for the community.

In the last year of my residency, I co-founded the Bronx Community Health Leaders program so that others could follow in my footsteps. The program helps socially and economically disadvantaged students pursue careers in medicine; at last count, 20 of my students had become doctors. Since I first came here, Einstein has increased its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

I still live in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium. People always ask me, ‘You could live elsewhere—why choose the Bronx?’ I answer that I have a pretty good life here. This is my home.”

Juan Robles, M.D., today and as a young boy riding his tricycle in Honduras; with his wife and infant daughter this past summer; and with his sister and mother at his Einstein graduation.

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