Mentor Olujimi Ajijola, MD, PhD and mentee Jay Lathen Gill II, PhD (MD candidate) connected through the UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), which is dedicated to educating and training exceptionally qualified individuals for careers in the biomedical and socio-medical sciences.
A Mentor Who Sees Your Whole Self
Dr. Gill will never forget meeting his mentor, Dr. Ajijola, for the first time on-site at UCLA.
“It was thrilling to see somebody that looks like me in that position,” Dr. Gill says, recalling a day of shadowing Dr. Ajijola during important clinical meetings and in the Ajijola Lab, which focuses on cardiovascular research with an emphasis on neuroscience.
Dr. Gill felt both impressed and relieved to meet Dr. Ajijola. Here was a successful physician-scientist, clearly effective and impactful in his work but also casual, relaxed, personable, and authentic. In his mentor, Gill saw an ideal counter to the formal academic persona he feared he’d have to adopt to be successful.
“That showed me you can be professional but still recognize the humanity of the person you're working with.”
The personable qualities Dr. Gill admired in Dr. Ajijola during their first meeting also proved invaluable throughout their mentor-mentee relationship.
“It has been really nice to have somebody that sees you as your whole self and understands who it is you want to be and can really connect with both that present you and that future you and help you make it there.”
Mentorship is Critical for Those Traditionally Underrepresented In Medicine
As one of few physician-scientists from a group traditionally underrepresented in medicine, Dr. Ajijola feels it’s important to nurture the next generation, help open doors, and break down barriers. He feels privileged to serve as a role model, even for medical students he doesn’t directly mentor or even meet in person.
He hopes students thinking about becoming physician-scientists might hear his story, learn that he’s the first Black MSTP co-director in the country, and realize it is possible for people from underrepresented minority groups to have careers in science and medicine.
In addition to inspiring the students he mentors, Dr. Ajijola prioritizes offering them comfort, as the training path for physician-scientists is both long and challenging.
“It can be quite hard even if someone's very passionate about what they want to do,” he explains.
Students walking the physician-scientist training path will inevitably encounter fear, uncertainty, and anxiety on top of other mental rigors. He strives to help medical school students navigate the day-to-day complexities and provide the reassurance they need to build confidence and make big decisions.
Dr. Gill’s training experience affirms Dr. Ajijola’s thoughtful mentorship gave him exactly what he needed.
“When you're in an environment where you don't look like everyone else, you're by nature going to be hypervigilant,” he says.
“You're going to be fearful and thinking about things that could potentially go wrong. Alleviating that anxiety allows you to focus on what you're truly here to do and what you're passionate about.”
Finding Balance as a Physician-Scientist and…
Throughout their mentorship, Dr. Gill and Dr. Ajijola talked a lot about balancing all the different aspects of life.
In addition to being a physician-scientist, the director of multiple programs, a practicing physician, and a professor, Dr. Ajijola is also a husband and a father. He’s learned many things about balance since he started his career.
“I think it's critical that you nurture all aspects of yourself.”
He nurtures his scientist self by constantly advancing the quality of his lab work and pushing to publish papers in top journals. His patients, he says, nurture his physician self.
“Every day that you're a physician, you learn something new, you see something new. Nurturing requires learning from each experience and each patient and making sure you're not just telling the patient what you know, but that you're applying what you know to what they're asking you—to what their needs are.”
As a family man, he says it’s important to not only carve out time for loved ones but also to be present during those times. He admits this can be challenging. You can’t control when a scientific idea or solution might strike.
“It's important to make sure your mind doesn't stray too much,” he says.
He knows he can’t stop the ideas from intruding during family time, but he can choose to put those ideas aside for later and continue being present with his family.
As someone early in his physician-scientist career, Dr. Gill acknowledges his current “I can do everything” attitude may not always be physically possible.
“My friends always say I never sleep.”
He takes a mindful approach to balancing competing desires: Spending all his time in the lab and sharing amazing experiences with his friends.
“I do my best to take time for myself during my weekends, which means I work a little harder during the week,” he says. “I'm learning as I go how to maximize my ability to engage in all the parts that make me who I am.”
Uplifting Mentorship: A Ripple Effect
Dr. Ajijola finds many things about his work rewarding. Mentoring up-and-coming physician-scientists is one of them.
“Getting to work with students and helping them navigate the path to get to where I am—that in itself feels like a measure of success.”
Dr. Ajijola loved watching Dr. Gill develop so far and looks forward to watching his career grow.
“I’m already proud of you,” Dr. Ajijola told Dr. Gill. “You’re going to make us all even more proud of you, and I’m really excited to see where things go for you.”
Looking to the future, Dr. Gill feels a strong urge to offer others the same whole-human mentorship he received from Dr. Ajijola. The influence of one strong mentor-mentee relationship can echo through generations of physician-scientists, as each passes along the support they felt so grateful to receive.
“I've really learned how important my community and my support system is,” Dr. Gill says. “As much as people pour into you, you have to pour back into people. I’m excited to give back and support others as much as they’ve supported me.”
Meet the mentor: Dr. Ajijola
Dr. Ajijola is the co-director of UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), director of the neurocardiology research program of the UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center, an associate professor of medicine, and a UCLA Health physician specializing in interventional cardiac electrophysiology.
He also runs the Ajijola Lab, which focuses on the neural mechanisms of cardiac dysfunction and ventricular arrhythmias.
Meet the mentee: Dr. Gill
Jay Lathen Gill II, PhD (MD candidate) received a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from the University of Pennsylvania, a master’s degree in biotechnology from Brown University, and a PhD from UCLA, where he’s currently working toward his MD degree.
He was a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Individual Fellow at the National Institutes of Health. At the Society for Neuroscience, he was part of the Neuroscience Scholars Program and also received the Trainee Professional Development Award.
His research focuses on identifying neurophysiological signatures of inappropriate fear reactivity that can be used as targets for deep brain stimulation treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.