UCMed’s Monica Peek Elected to National Academy of Medicine

Peek is the Ellen H. Block Professor for Health Justice and Associate Director of the Chicago Center for Diabetes Translational Research.

By Nicole Roesler

Dr. Monica Peek, the Ellen H. Block Professor for Health Justice in the Department of Medicine and Associate Director of the Chicago Center for Diabetes Translational Research, was elected on October 17 to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) for her work combating racial disparities in healthcare.

The National Academy is renowned for bringing together the sharpest minds globally and putting them on center stage for their advances in their respective fields. The private nonprofit institution provides advice to the nation and international community on measures to improve health and is highly selective, electing only 100 new individuals per year. Being elected is considered one of the highest honors in the medical field.

Peek describes her work in health equity as the pursuit of a better understanding of why the lives of the underprivileged community of Hyde Park are not as stable as those from affluent backgrounds. She actively tries to evaluate and create solutions to change the tide in order to discover “what we can do to change that, so that everyone, no matter what your social identity is, has the same access to the goods and resources that help promote health, and [everyone] is free [from] the obstacles [that] society has put in front of them [and that] are within their communities as they try and navigate their way to health

Peek’s interest in combating healthcare disparities comes from her experience in medicine, which started at a young age. Peek shares that it was a hobby of her mother’s to collect small bells when she grew up, and that this was one of her earliest memories tied to taking care of others when they fell ill. “I knew that I liked taking care of people. And so whenever someone in my family got sick, my mom used to collect little bells, and so I would spring into action, I would get the little bell for them to ring, you know, if they needed anything,” Peek said. “I was like their little nurse. So, I just loved that role of caring for people when they were sick, and that, to me, equaled being a doctor.”

Born just four years after Jim Crow laws had ended in the South, Peek recognized that her choices in pursuing a professional career were largely framed by the circumstances in which she was raised. With parents who were first generation college students, Peek realized her path was largely guided by her strong sense of self and the gut instinct that, above all, she wanted to serve those in need.

“Both of my parents were super dedicated to education [and] became professors because they saw education as one of the ways in which Black people could get freedom from oppression and from structural racism,” Peek said. “That framework of justice and freedom for people who looked like me was going to have to work its way into my life’s work. And so, once I decided I was going to be a doctor, I had to then try and figure out how I was going to try and put those two things together.”

Peek shared that despite being acutely aware of all the history that was occurring around her, her father, an African American history professor, played a significant role in making sure that she never internalized the negative stereotypes that surrounded her.

“Teaching us not to fear the things that we otherwise might have feared had me not be exposed to those [stereotypes] at a young age, and so I didn’t know that women weren’t supposed to be interested in science and [that] Black women were considered inferior because my parents made sure that those weren’t things that I internalized,” Peek said.

She mentioned that her family dogs growing up were always German Shepherds and often named after African countries and tribes. In hindsight, Peek sees this as an effort by her father to mitigate any fear that his children could have of a breed associated with police dogs, which he had seen attack Black people during his own lifetime.

Thus, while navigating this unfamiliar career path, Peek set her sights on gaining a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from Johns Hopkins on a gap year from medical school. After having completed the course in three quarters instead of the usual four, she left with a greater sense of the landscape of the medical field as well as which direction to begin funneling her interests into when she resumed medical school.

“It just sort of ‘lightened the room’ a little bit. I could see what was in the room, and [when I went] back to med school I could just see more of what was around me and what was possible,” she said.

This soon became the pattern of Peek’s journey to success: chipping away at the skillsets she found that she needed in order to further her research and continuing to seek opportunities to do so.

Additionally, Peek explains that she has made it a priority to continue being a maverick for social change in her field by upholding the truest version of herself when communicating with others, as well as being unafraid to hold other professionals accountable when necessary on topics about racism, no matter what her resume entails.

“Now they finally all fit together to be the kind of person that I want to be. And yes, I do have heroes and ‘she’-roes. But I have also forged a path that is unique for me, it’s been really important for me to be an advocate and to not only write papers and grants, but to also write op-eds and blogs, to use traditional media and social media as a venue for social change,” Peek said.

While Peek’s professional life may be what she is most recognized for, she never hesitates to showcase her pride in being a loving and devoted mother to her children.

“There is no way that I would want to have a life that did not include my work because that is what I have chosen as my description of who I am. This is me as I present myself to the world, but there is no way that I would want my life without my children. They add a dimension to your life that you wouldn’t have been able to describe before you had them,” Peek said.

For those in medicine or any professional career alike, Peek said, “Don’t let the beauty of life’s natural stages pass you by because you’re a physician. You can do all of the things that you are supposed to do as a human and it makes you a better physician for it.”