Inaugural PILLAR retreat provides mentorship for residents underrepresented in medicine

Faculty and attendees of the inaugural PILLAR retreat outside the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford, including Jeffrey Goldberg, MD, PhD, Caroline Fisher, MD, and Eydie Miller-Ellis, MD (front row, L to R).

THIS YEAR, WE were proud to help create and host the inaugural Program In Lasting Leadership and Academic Representation (PILLAR). This intensive, in-person mentorship program hosted ophthalmology residents from around North America who self-identify as underrepresented in medicine (URiM) in a two-day retreat, with discussions ranging from the various career pathways within academic ophthalmology, how residents can successfully navigate into fellowship and academic careers, the joys and challenges of these career pathways, and other topics such as negotiating for a job, academic promotion, and work-life integration.

A commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) has been a consistent philosophy of the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford. This commitment is reflected in initiatives like a residency program of 30% to 45% URiM trainees; research into how race and ethnicity impacted access to eye care during the recent pandemic; a study on how residency application screening or faculty recruitment face unconscious bias; and patient care by developing first-in-class programs in global ophthalmology.

PILLAR was co-created with the National Medical Association, Ophthalmology Section, a sponsor of the Rabb-Venable Excellence in Ophthalmology Program, which supports medical students, residents, and fellows in ophthalmology who are underrepresented in medicine, or who desire to work in underserved communities. Co-directors for PILLAR included Jeffrey Goldberg, MD, PhD, Blumenkranz Smead professor and chair of ophthalmology at Stanford; Mildred MG Olivier, MD, associate dean of the Ponce Health Sciences University School of Medicine; Eydie Miller-Ellis, MD, professor of clinical ophthalmology at the Scheie Eye Institute/University of Pennsylvania and vice chair for faculty affairs and diversity; and Ahmara Ross, MD, PhD, assistant professor of ophthalmology and neurology at Penn Medicine.

Residents were able to connect one-on-one with faculty presenters during small group sessions at PILLAR.

“Our topics focused on mentorship of residents who have just completed their internship year of residency since they are at a point in training where they may not have solidified their fellowship choice or next career steps, and we wanted to provide the information they need to both make a choice and also excel in doing so,” Goldberg said.

Nearly two dozen esteemed ophthalmology faculty from institutions around the country were also invited to speak to the resident trainees at the retreat. One invited speaker, Caroline Fisher, MD, clinical associate professor of ophthalmology, is the director of diversity and inclusion at Byers Eye Institute as well as the Stanford Ophthalmology specialty career advisor, and she spoke on what it meant to her to be Latina in academia, along with her experiences with DEIB leadership in the academic setting. “I have found that as residents and as faculty, we are fortified by the community and support we create for each other,” Fisher said.

After the two-day, fully packed agenda, the residents left with a new sense of community and a network of colleagues and faculty they could reach out to for career guidance and resources.

“The residents were so appreciative and found the information enlightening as they were unaware of the broad options available in academic medicine,” Miller-Ellis said. 

Goldberg hopes that this event will go down as a seminal event in ophthalmology and in medicine for its contributions to truly changing how we resource and encourage residents to succeed in—and help improve—academic ophthalmology. Planning is already underway for the second annual retreat next fall, as well as the creation of enduring content and pathways for ongoing, continuous mentorship that can be carried through the year.

PILLAR attendees pose outside of the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford University.

PILLAR joins other Stanford ophthalmology avenues in support of DEIB efforts, such as the Stanford Clinical Opportunity for Residency Experience (SCORE) Program, which brings fourth-year medical students from URiM backgrounds to Stanford for a month-long residential clinical training program. Students are matched with faculty, resident mentors, and research advisors who focus on empowering trainees into successful careers in medicine. The Committee on Ophthalmology Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (CODE-I), formalized in 2020, also remains an ongoing presence in the department, encouraging dialogue about diversity and inclusion freely and openly for faculty and staff across the department. It is co-chaired by Fisher, who collaborates with Bettina Canuto-Len, MAOB, DEIB project manager, to organize DEIB events and training opportunities.

“Diversity is a core pillar for our department, because having different life experience and backgrounds within the medical field strengthens our ability to better understand patients of various backgrounds and provide them with the optimal care they deserve,” Fisher said. “I am eager to see how we will continue to grow our DEI efforts at Byers. These programs are just the starting point for paving the way to a diverse future workforce and to a broader vision of medical care for all.”


Kathryn Sill is the former web and communications specialist for the Byers Eye Institute in the Department of Ophthalmology, at Stanford University School of Medicine.