Black History Month Member Interview: Wilfreda Lindsey, MD, MS

wlWilfreda Lindsey, MD, MS

Neurology and Neurogenetics Clinic at Kennedy Krieger Institute 

Assistant Professor in the Neurology Department

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine



Q. Please tell me about your career path and research.

A. I think I’m one of those few people who's known what they've wanted to do for forever. When I was five years old, I said I was going to be a veterinarian or a pediatrician, and I stuck with it. But as I've gone throughout life, I realized that my mom played a heavy part - she was very influential in what I wanted to do. She is a doctor, but not a physician. She's a Doctor of Education and was a special educator my entire life growing up. I was always around her children (students) and it was back in the time where we were really involved in their lives in a very intimate way. I used to have a sleepovers, we would be in summer camps with her kids, and I was always just kind of intrigued about why their minds worked a little bit differently than everyone else's that I was in school with, or my cousins, or my family. And then fast forward to med school, I found myself looking to take care of the same population, and I didn't really know how to do so, and so I found the field of neurodevelopmental disabilities. I just really have tried very hard to take care of this population in a very holistic kind of comprehensive way. I think my mom really influenced that and it leads right into my research. I felt like this population, even on the education side, was always kind of the underdog, and in medicine I see the same thing. For instance, I think over time, especially those with genetic syndromes, we've prolonged life, and it's been great, but the quality of life has not always been improved. And so that is my goal with my research - I care for people across the lifespan and the time period that seems to be the most difficult, for not only my patients, but their caregivers, their loved ones, is that transition age. And so my research focuses on improving the transition time period from pediatric to adult health care and even outside of health care, education, residential things legal aid - really improving that process for this population.

Q. What elements of diversity, equity, and inclusion are most important to you and your career?

A. I think that that is kind of a strange question, because I think everything is built on having diversity in the first place. I think all of the elements are important, but I think that just having diversity is the first, the foundation, having different mindsets, having different opinions, having different types of people, in the makeup is just where you need to start. But then, having them included right in in the conversation, making sure that all of the differing opinions and different perspectives are heard and are important too. So then, I think inclusion is like the next step, the next layer. But then equity, I think that's where most people are like trying to improve that process. I think one of the best examples for me is that going through medical school, I don't want to say that we had a quota to need of like underrepresented people in medicine, but it was very clear that there was like the 10% of the class was people that were underrepresented in medicine, and all of us didn't have the same resources, we didn't all come from the same background. Yeah, we were in the room. Yeah, we were included in the conversation, but we didn't all get the same resources. We didn't have the same opportunities to thrive, and so that therefore I think the outcome was a little bit different for some of those people than others who had 

certain resources their entire lives. And so I think that the thing that we need to work on now as a community, as a nation, as lots of organizations, is the equity piece. Making sure that we are providing what everybody needs, so that they can thrive in situations. 

Q. What's the best career advice you've received as far?

A. So again, I knew what I wanted to do since I was five, so I've gotten the career advice since I was five, and I think that there's been very great. But the best piece of career advice I've gotten I think I got the last year of training, and it was actually from Bhooma Aravamuthan , and she told me that “it's great that you take every opportunity that comes your way, but what you need to think about is your brand - when people see you, what are they going to think about? Yes, you can take opportunities. And yes, you can really, really make the most of every situation, but what you need to do is focus on what it is that you want to do, what you want your career to look like and make every opportunity fit that.”

Q. What does Black History Month mean to you?

A. I go back and forth about this with family and friends all the time, because I think for some people Black History Month feels a little bit restrictive, and it seems in some ways like an insult that we get this one month to celebrate all the contributions that we've given. But for me, especially in this time, where things like critical race theory is being erased and history is being rewritten, Black History Month is very important. I think that it's great, that even though it might be the shortest month, that we get this time where everybody knows that the contributions the African Americans have made are going to be celebrated, we're going to be talking about this - this is a collective time where everybody knows that black history will be spoken about, and I think that it comes with a freedom of sorts where sometimes there are times where you feel like, okay, I don't want to be that one person in the room that's always bringing up the topic of blackness or talking about what contributions we've made, and making sure that things are not forgotten. But I think having Black History Month gives me the freedom to talk about that and to celebrate that.

Q. Who is an inspirational black historical figure that inspires you, and why?

A. I have a few. I think that right now my favorite is Dr. Patricia Bath - she was the first African American ever to complete an ophthalmology residency in the United States, and I think she's awesome because one, she came from Howard University, that's where she went to undergrad, and so I think that it's great that she came from HBCU and did her ophthalmology residency, and was like not only a great resident, but while she was in residency, she convinced all of these older white guys that were around her, her mentors and her peers to give free eye care and eye exams to the black residents in Harlem, and it's like a great way of using who you are to reach back to your community. Not only that, she revolutionized the laserphaco and revolutionized cataract surgery, and she's just been an awesome figure. She passed away in 2019, but she was always very sure of herself, and she stood in the fact that she was a pioneer, but she was very outright about the fact that “I know that I’m the first to this, period. But I’m also the first black person, the first woman to do this, and I never doubted myself,” and she would often say that “I did this so that people who come after me know that it's possible to do.” I just love her story.

Q. What can professional organizations like the ANA do to support the advancement of black physician researchers and scientists?

A. I touched on it earlier when I said that you know the first thing is to be intentional about having diversity and including the diverse people that you invite in the conversation. So not just saying we would like people who have been historically underrepresented to be in the room, but we actually care about what it is that you have to say. One includes you on every level. Yes, we want you to be members, but we also want you to be in leadership. We also want to hear your ideas, and we want to implement those ideas and not just leave them as theories or hypotheticals. So, having backing from the people who are at the top, the people who are in the proverbial C-suite, have the backing, but also having financial backing to do the things that you need to do, and not just having people provide ideas without giving them something back, having it be a mutual relationship. And then the last thing is, once you invite people, you allow people to put their ideas out there, giving people who have not have the same resources, who have not had the same benefit of being around research or being around physicians, giving them the needs and the resources and the mentorship to be able to get to the same places that other people who might have had that before get to have.