On the shoulders of giants

Jun 3, 2021 | Kanaaz Pereira, Connect Moderator | @kanaazpereira

When Dr. Essa Mohamed heard Dr. Lewis Roberts speak about liver cancer and hepatitis in the Somali population at a community meeting in 2011, he wanted to work with him. Three of Dr. Mohamed’s grandparents have had liver disease, which disproportionately affects Africans and Asians.

“I was doing research in a lab at Mayo Clinic but hungered to work with disease populations in a way that impacts people’s lives,” says Dr. Mohamed, who is from Somalia but grew up in Rochester, Minnesota.

Fast forward to Dr. Mohamed volunteering in Dr. Roberts’ lab and then choosing him for his mentor during his Ph.D. program in the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences clinical and translational science track. Dr. Roberts connected Dr. Mohamed with resources, helped him build networks of researchers around the world, introduced him to contacts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and encouraged him to write grants.

Dr. Mohamed collaborated with Dr. Roberts on research that explores the higher incidence of liver disease among African (i.e., Somali, Ethiopian, Liberian and Kenyan) and Asian (i.e., Hmong, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Laotian) immigrant populations in Minnesota. With Dr. Roberts’ help, Dr. Mohamed built a consortium of 21 clinics and hospitals in nine African countries for a research study that collected and analyzed data from more than 2,500 liver cancer patients.

Dr. Mohamed is now a postdoctoral fellow in the Mayo Clinic Department of Cardiovascular Medicine and funded through a National Institutes of Health T32 training grant in lung physiology and biomedical engineering. He says Dr. Roberts has been an ideal mentor. But that’s not the full picture.

In 2016, Dr. Mohamed experienced several traumatic incidents — an uncle died, and a cousin and a fellow Mayo Clinic trainee died by suicide.

“I’m normally happy, energetic and outgoing, but I withdrew,” says Dr. Mohamed. “It didn’t affect my work, but it certainly affected my demeanor.” Dr. Roberts noticed.

“He asked me to meet several times, and I put him off,” says Dr. Mohamed. “One day we were face to face, and he insisted on talking. I’ve always been the person who helps and comforts others, so it was hard to let myself be vulnerable. I was in denial about how those deaths affected me. Over several meetings, I opened up to Dr. Roberts, who made me realize it’s OK to get help when bad things happen. I got therapy and gradually felt lighter and less gloomy.

“It would be easy for an academic mentor to not address what you’re going through personally. Dr. Roberts isn’t that person. He tries to make sure the people around him are healthy and well. I now know that no matter where I am or what I need, he’s there for me. He feels like family. A true mentor cares about you holistically and builds you up academically and personally. I aspire to be that mentor for others.”

As Dr. Mohamed prepares for a career in academic medicine, he wants to become a mentor, advocate and clinician-scientist like Dr. Roberts. “I want to be able to do what Dr. Roberts does,” he says.

This article was originally published in Alumni Magazine, Issue 1, 2021

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