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The Secret Lives of Doctors — Dr. Marja Hurley, the mentor

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A Broadway performer. An accomplished pianist. A dedicated marathoner. A third-degree black belt. An award-winning filmmaker. A water-skier with all the right moves. A high-flying fighter pilot physician. Doctors from across the state open up about their off-script origin stories and lives outside the office. 

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Marja Hurley, M.D., Professor of Medicine and Orthopaedic Surgery, in her laboratory at UConn Health.

The Mentor

Dr. Marja Hurley

Professor of medicine and orthopedics and member of the Institute of Systems Genomics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine

Dr. Marja Hurleycould have been content with being the first Black woman to receive a medical degree from the UConn School of Medicine in 1976. But while at UConn, Hurley, the daughter of a nurse, became concerned with the lack of diversity at UConn and medical schools across the country. Quietly, but with vision, planning and teamwork, this product of UConn undergraduate, medical school and residency has diversified the student body. Consider, with 11 percent of its students African American, in 2020, U.S. News & World Report ranked the UConn School of Medicine eighth nationwide in the percentage of African American students. 

When Hurley joined the UConn faculty in 1986, she planned to see patients, teach medical students and continue her NIH-funded research of bone-related disorders such as osteoporosis. She soon brought together a team and founded the Health Career Opportunity Programs (HCOP) in an effort to attract more socioeconomically and racially diverse students to medicine, dentistry and other health fields. Ten years later, she launched the Aetna Health Professions Partnership Initiative, followed by the Doctors Academy during the 2007-08 school year. Doctors Academy students receive mentoring throughout high school, college, dental and medical school — typically 12 years. Hurley and others created the Health Disparities Clinical Summer Research Fellowship Program, which, before the pandemic, placed undergraduate college students in community health centers to shadow physicians and other health professionals for seven weeks. The program is designed to address health disparities by making future clinicians more informed, aware and sensitive. Students also receive mentoring and conduct a research project. Since its founding in 1996, the Aetna Health Professions Partnership Initiative programs have had nearly 1,000 graduates, 813 of whom are in graduate or professional programs. Students from middle and high schools and colleges have participated in at least one of 14 Aetna Health Professions Partnership Initiatives since 1996, and more than 760 of them have entered medical, dental, pharmacy or other health professions. 

“When we talk about health disparities, it transcends race and also involves socioeconomic status. If you are a wealthy Black individual who did not grow up in a certain area, you also need to be educated about health disparities,” says Hurley, adding that these programs involve teams of people, including medical and dental students who volunteer to serve as mentors. “The approach I took with my team involved developing short-term and long-term strategies. I have a lot of ideas. I have a strong group of folks who help me implement what I want to accomplish.” 

Loving science and admiring her family doctor while growing up in Jamaica, Hurley decided on medicine early. She knew students had to start young in order to be prepared for the rigors of pre-med college courses. Her long-term strategy for diversifying UConn medical and dental schools involved developing a pipeline of students interested in science. She and her team work with science teachers, principals and guidance counselors in Hartford, Bloomfield, East Hartford and Manchester to identify middle school students and begin working with them. Through the Doctors Academy, high school students commit to attending college prep-level math and science classes 30 Saturdays a year and six weeks in the summer through all four years of high school. 

“They need to be motivated. They need to be dependable and recommended by their teachers,” Hurley says. They can be ‘B’ students who are willing to put in the effort, she says, adding, “I think students will respond to the expectations you have for them.” It’s helpful for them to be surrounded by peers working toward similar goals. “I cannot study for them. We provide the opportunities. They know we believe in them.”

One of this year’s UConn School of Medicine graduates who has benefited from Hurley’s vision is Windsor native Faith Crittenden, who earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from UConn and a master’s in public health from the Yale School of Public Health. Starting her residency in pediatrics at Yale New Haven Health in July, Crittenden had always loved math and science and planned to be a nurse until, at 16, she heard about the HCOP from a friend, she says. 

“Through HCOP, I realized I wanted to go into medical school. Everyone in my family were nurses; that’s what I knew,” Crittenden says. Through the Saturday Academy and summer programs, she met medical students who looked like her and were from similar backgrounds. “It was when interacting with one of the students when I thought, ‘If she can go into medicine, I can too.’ ” She has participated “in every program ever since” and she credits Hurley and her team with “making sure everyone feels confident being there. One person tells another person and they join a pipeline,” she says. The summer program attracts students from the whole country, she says, and she now has friends working in several states. She enjoyed being one of many students of color in medical school, she says, because, “I think it made it easier to see a diversity of thought. Usually when you’re the one [person of color,] everyone comes to you and asks your opinion. We have kids who are second- and third-generation Black doctors as well as first generation.”

Despite the success of her programs, Hurley says the biggest challenge to reaching more students is funding. The John and Valerie Rowe Endowment has provided $6 million, for which Hurley is grateful.

Understanding the importance of parental buy-in, the team offers seminars for parents and guardians to teach them what their children need to do to be prepared for college. Before the pandemic, they offered parents dinner seminars on health-related topics such as diabetes and hypertension. Since COVID-19, they’ve given virtual presentations in English and Spanish on several topics, including the COVID vaccines, she says. “I’m not quite sure we would have been as successful without the parents.”

NEXT: Dr. Luci Juvan, the water-skier

This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.