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Mentorship can help solidify a decision for medicine 

For Starling Tolliver, MD, dermatology provided an opportunity to help her community.

Dr. Tolliver’s story

Starling Tolliver, MD, (left) with her mentor Andrew F. Alexis, MD, FAAD, (right) when participating in the AAD’s Diversity Mentorship Program in 2019.
Starling Tolliver, MD, (left) with her mentor Andrew F. Alexis, MD, FAAD, (right) when participating in the AAD’s Diversity Mentorship Program in 2019.
I am the youngest of three girls, and grew up very economically disadvantaged in Akron, Ohio. It wasn’t until reading a school wide book called The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream, about three Black men who were poor but were interested in becoming doctors, that I started having an interest in medicine. In the book they made a pact about helping each other become doctors and with my two close friends at the time, we made that same pact.

We ended up going down different paths; one friend became a nurse, but the other’s life ended tragically due to the environment we grew up in. It was then I began to understand the differences in life trajectory that resources and mentorship provided, especially for those who come from my community.

It was also around this time that, although I did well academically, I was struggling with my decision to pursue medicine because of imposter syndrome. However, because of my friend’s death, I was determined to complete this journey into medicine — not only for people who look like me but for my friend as well.

It became my goal to help other underrepresented minorities from similar backgrounds get the resources and mentorship they needed to solidify a decision for medicine. I also attribute my renewed passion to my older sister pursuing medicine as a late career change. It was inspiring to see someone who looked like them make it through medical school.

My decision to pursue dermatology began differently. Around 9 years old, I lost my hair due to common hair-styling practices in my community. Seeing in my own family and in other women, I realized then how pervasive scarring alopecias, breakage, and damaging styling practices were in my community. It frustrated me that this was something just to be accepted as “how it is” without any pursuit of improving it. Because of this, I wanted to help Black women grow and retain their hair in healthy ways either through innovative research or community education.

It wasn’t until college I realized that I could follow this interest in hair as a dermatologist. I learned that dermatologists weren’t just doctors of the skin — they were doctors of the skin, hair, and nails. Unfortunately, imposter syndrome returned as I realized how competitive it was to get in. Luckily, early in medical school, we had an exploration week in dermatology, and I learned how the field wanted to increase its diversity.  I was able to read a call to action from Dr. Henry Lim promoting diversity. This inspired me greatly. I felt full of hope just knowing there were people on the other side wanting to help me become a dermatologist.

Learn more about imposter syndrome

Learn more about imposter syndrome affecting dermatologists in the September 2023 issue of Dermatology World

I was able to move forward with determination to pursue this dream, I found my mentor at Ohio State University, Dr. Kaffenberger, who helped me with connections and research. He introduced me to Andrew Alexis, MD, FAAD, who worked on a study focusing on Black women and their hair. This was my first author publication. From this relationship I participated in the AAD’s Diversity Mentorship Program and the Skin of Color Society. For the first time, I saw a Black dermatologist at work. I saw how patients were so grateful to have someone who looked like them, especially those patients who had significant distrust of the medical system. For me, seeing a Black dermatologist doing excellent work allowed me to believe that I could do the same.

Dr. Alexis wrote a letter for me that I have since heard about in every interview. I was able to do an oral presentation on my research paper at the American Academy of Dermatology and complete multiple publications. Without these early experiences in dermatology, I do not think I would be able to be where I am today. And as of now, I am working with the “Pathways: Inclusivity in Dermatology” program, working with their committee to help underrepresented residents.

Mentors open the door for you to other people in the field and give you the resources that you need in order to get here. There’s a special connection when someone who looks like you sees you and can lift you up. I hope that I can do the same for those coming through the pipeline. 

Support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The AAD’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative aims to foster diversity in the dermatology specialty and increase dermatological services to underserved populations. Learn more about this impact, and how you can get involved.

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