$15M Gift for Need-Based Scholarships

Einstein medical students gather for their white-coat ceremony.
By Teresa Carr
An anonymous donor’s generosity will help Einstein attract and retain tomorrow’s leaders—and has already inspired others to give

A lifelong dream of becoming a doctor brought Sean Sukal, M.D., Ph.D. ’02, from his native Trinidad to the United States at the age of 17. After graduating from the City University of New York’s Hunter College, where he met his wife, Mintra Sukal, M.D. ’00, he was elated to be accepted to Einstein.

But as an international student, he wasn’t eligible for government loans like the ones that financed his wife’s education. Without the scholarship he received from Einstein, says Dr. Sean Sukal, his family could not have afforded medical school.  

“My dad would have had to sell our family’s land in Trinidad,” he says. “Thank God he didn’t have to.”

The idea that it takes a village to raise our young doesn’t end with elementary school. It’s true of medical school, too.
 — Dr. Sean Sukal

Now, to help other aspiring physicians realize their dreams, the couple has established the Sukal Family Endowed Scholarship Fund, which will help defray tuition costs for medical students with financial need. 

Sitting side by side in their living room in Boca Raton, Fla., the Sukals explain how they were inspired by a new $15 million scholarship gift to Einstein. That donation, from an anonymous benefactor, consists of two parts: a $10 million outright gift for student support, plus another $5 million endowment that will match other donations ranging from $50,000 to $250,000. 

The one-to-one match is “amazing,” says Dr. Mintra Sukal as her husband nods enthusiastically. “Supporting scholarships is something that we’ve always thought of doing,” he adds. “The opportunity to double our contribution convinced us to make it happen.”

Sean Sukal, M.D., Ph.D. '02, and Mintra Sukal, M.D. '00.

Einstein sorely needs scholarship funds to compete with other medical schools in recruiting talented students, especially those from groups historically underrepresented in medicine, says Joshua Nosanchuk, M.D., senior associate dean for medical education at Einstein. “Promising students may choose to go elsewhere—or not go to medical school at all—for financial reasons.”

The Sukals credit their success to the support they received from Einstein and now want to extend a hand to others. “The idea that it takes a village to raise our young doesn’t end with elementary school,” says Dr. Sean Sukal. “It’s true of medical school, too.”

Multiplying the Good

The anonymous donor is strengthening the Einstein community of donors by inspiring others to establish endowed scholarships in their own names. The philosophy behind the match is that it will create a perpetual loop of generosity, inspiring alumni to support incoming Einstein medical students for generations to come.  

Like the Sukals, many other Einstein alumni seem to have been waiting for the right opportunity to donate. In a 2022 feasibility study of nearly 100 alumni, 84% reported that student support through scholarships is their top priority for philanthropic giving. And 45 Einstein alumni, including 10 of the 40 members of the alumni board of directors, have already taken advantage of the new $5 million endowment to create their own named scholarships. 

Donors to date include Sten Vermund, M.D. ’77, Ph.D., a pediatrician and infectious-disease epidemiologist who recently stepped down as dean of the Yale School of Public Health to return to teaching and research, and his wife, Pilar Vargas, M.D. ’77, Ph.D., a retired child psychiatrist. “It’s human nature to want to multiply a good,” says Dr. Vermund, co-chair of the alumni board’s development subcommittee and member of the Einstein Alumni Association’s board of governors. “The generous gift of matching funds helps us do that in a substantial way.”

Pilar Vargas, M.D. ‘77, Ph.D., and Sten Vermund, M.D. ‘77, Ph.D.

Drs. Vermund and Vargas chose to double their impact with an endowed scholarship in honor of Einstein’s Marilyn and Stanley M. Katz Dean, Gordon Tomaselli, M.D. ’82. The fund remains open to new donations.

Einstein has some catching up to do when it comes to fundraising for student support, says Dr. Vermund. In comparison, he points to the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, where tuition is free, and to other peer institutions that keep student debt more manageable. Einstein’s current leadership has done a great job of turning the ship around, says Dr. Vermund. “Now I hope that we can sail out under full steam, bringing the alumni and friends of the institution along to support the Einstein educational mission.”

Lightening the Load of Student Debt

Raja Flores, M.D. ’92, was excited to join other alumni when he established the Raja Flores, M.D., Endowed Scholarship. As chair of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, Dr. Flores treats everyone—from the wealthiest patients to those experiencing homelessness. He credits Einstein with instilling the ethos that patients from all walks of life deserve the same compassion, dignity, and respect.

Dr. Flores himself almost chose a more affordable medical school. But then he read an inscription on the wall of Einstein’s Belfer Building: There is no greater privilege than to be entrusted with another person’s mind, body, and spirit. “I fell in love with the place,” he says. “I decided to take out loans and whatever else it took to go here.”

Raja Flores, M.D. '92

Today, many Einstein students take on significant debt to follow their hearts. As of 2020 nearly half of Einstein students graduated with $200,000 or more of debt, compared to an average of only 17% of students at other local medical schools.  

Beginning their careers with so much debt takes a toll on new physicians—as well as on the field of medicine itself. A 2019 review of 52 studies published in the British Medical Journal found that high medical debt negatively affects students’ mental health and lowers academic performance.

Typically, residents and interns make very little money, says Dr. Nosanchuk. “Having that large debt looming over them when they’re working really hard and trying to make ends meet is disheartening,” he says. “Graduating with low or no debt increases people’s wellness not just while they’re students, but also throughout their residencies and training.”

The British Medical Journal analysis found that the fear of burdensome debt discourages students from pursuing lower-paying specialties such as infectious disease. Last year only 56% of training programs for infectious-disease physicians in the United States filled their trainee slots, compared with 90% of most other specialties. The chief barrier: high prior debt combined with low compensation, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“I see others like me out there, and I want to help them realize their dreams.”
— Dr. Raja Flores

Supporting Generations of Students

Coming from a low-income family shouldn’t dictate a student’s choice of a medical school or specialty, says the anonymous benefactor. That’s why the focus of the donation is on students with financial need, with an emphasis on supporting those students who are least able to afford tuition at Einstein.

That’s what motivates Dr. Flores, too. “I see others like me out there,” he says, “and I want to help them realize their dreams.”

The Sukals’ story is a testament to the tremendous dividends that an investment in an Einstein education can yield. Dr. Sean Sukal blazed a trail for physicians of color in dermatology, a field in which only about 7% of U.S. practitioners are Black or Hispanic. 

“We are so grateful for the education, training, and life experience we received at Einstein,” says Dr. Mintra Sukal, a radiologist. “We’re just so happy to be able to give back.” 

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