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Black women are displaying excellence in academia and making history in the process. According to Teen Vogue, LaShyra “Lash” Nolen became the first Black woman elected as Harvard Medical School’s class president.

For the Compton native—who is an activist and Fulbright Scholar—her journey in medicine is equally about increasing racial and gender representation in the sector as it is about healing the health ailments of individuals. Nolen’s infatuation with STEM started at an early age. In third grade, she took home the first-place prize at a science fair. While coming of age in California she didn’t see many examples of Black women leaders in the field that she wanted to pursue. However, her mother—who was a single teen parent—exemplified determination and perseverance by overcoming the odds and earning her master’s degree; a drive that would stick with Nolen throughout her academic journey.

The lack of representation was also present among the student leadership roles at Harvard Medical School, which motivated her to change the narrative. A lot of Nolen’s work is centered on exploring how injustices are interconnected with health and human rights. She has conducted investigative research surrounding how systemic racism impacts the health narratives of people of color. “Many of the illnesses that we see in clinics and hospitals across the country are symptoms of racism,” she told Teen Vogue. “At the very inception of this country, black people did not have access to the privileges of owning land, accessing health care or adequate housing. We continue to see systemic racism manifest through policies from the federal to the local levels, which is the reason we have health disparities today. The only way that my community will truly have sustainable, positive, health outcomes, is through our society’s reckoning with the systemic and historical wrongs committed against Black people.”

Nolen—who credits Serena Williams, Michelle Obama and Ida B. Wells as sources of inspiration—hopes her accomplishment inspires a wave of Black girls to pursue careers in STEM stating that there are young girls who are “excellent and deserve access to opportunity, but won’t take the leap because society tells them that it’s not for them.”

Black students are breaking barriers at Harvard. In 2018, Kristine E. Guillaume became the first Black woman president of its student newspaper.

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