Credit: University of Alabama at Birmingham

Desalyn Johnson (B.S. Biological Sciences, Spring 2019) has been awarded the 2021 Sara Crews Finley, M.D. Endowed Leadership Scholarship.

“I am extremely humbled to be chosen for this award,” Johnson says. “I am grateful to my parents for their love and support, to the culture from which I come and my Lord who has guided me throughout my entire life. I would not have been able to receive this scholarship without this support, love and kindness.

“I would also like to thank the Finley family. I am honored that they see something in me that they would like to invest in, and I do not take their confidence lightly. I am dedicated to pursuing my best in every area of life and using that success to bless, encourage and motivate others.”

The Sara Crews Finley, M.D. Endowed Leadership Scholarship honors the legacy of Sara Crews Finley, M.D., co-founder of the first medical genetics program in the Southeast and a pioneer in the field, as well as a beloved faculty member and student mentor. Established by her family in 2014, the scholarship recognizes students who demonstrate exceptional leadership, service and academic standing both in and outside of their medical training. It is awarded annually to a rising third-year medical student and provides full tuition for the third year of medical school and is renewable for the fourth year. Including Johnson, there have been seven Finley Scholars in the School of Medicine.

“The continued success of the Sara C. Finley, M.D. Leadership Scholarship Program is so gratifying to our family,” says Sara J. Finley, Finley family representative and daughter of Sara Crews Finley, M.D., and Wayne H. Finley, M.D., Ph.D. “Our recipient this year, Desalyn Johnson, was selected from a deep and talented applicant pool. Desalyn will be an outstanding addition to our accomplished group of past scholars. She has already made an impact in scientific research, the arts, mentorship and promoting diversity, inclusion and multi-cultural awareness. Her impact will only grow as she pursues graduate studies with a focus on health disparities and completes her medical school training.”

Because her goals as a physician center around community engagement and patient advocacy, Johnson is also pursuing a Master of Science in Public Health at the UAB School of Public Health. She is completing her clinical training on the School of Medicine’s Huntsville Regional Medical Campus. 

Johnson hopes to expand her research in health disparities, work for which she earned an NIH National Research Service Award. The award affords her 12 months of dedicated time to research health disparities that disproportionally affect the Southeast. Her research centers around the effect of maternal health insurance status on infant morbidity and mortality rates.

Johnson also has a passion for teaching and mentorship. She has mentored for the UAH Honors Mentor Program and the LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation) Mentor Program, as a patient educator at M-Power and as a Spanish translator for Equal Access Birmingham, among others.

When it comes to teaching, she says her inspiration stems from the example set by her mother. “She is a retired third grade teacher, and I was constantly inspired by the devotion and commitment she had for her students and the respect they gave her as a result. This is apparent when we go anywhere in our hometown; we are always greeted by a former student who gives her a big hug and tells her about the positive impact she had on them. The admiration and honor that they have for her is palpable.”

“As I became older, I began tutoring her students in various subjects and I began to experience the joy that comes from working with someone who may be struggling, but guiding them until they understand that concept. It is humbling and invigorating to see their eyes light up once they have reached that milestone. It is this same joy that encourages me to make teaching and mentorship a significant portion of my career.”

Johnson has also served in multiple leadership and diversity roles in her community and on the campuses of UAH and UAB. “Diversity is extremely important to ensure a positive and enriching educational environment; however, we must not stop merely with diversity, we must push forward to ensure inclusion. Diversity means that various groups are present, while inclusion ensures that all those groups are welcomed and appreciated,” Johnson says.

“Having people from different backgrounds, beliefs and cultures represented in medicine will enable us to better care for a diverse patient population. As physicians, we are not required to agree or even fully understand the beliefs of all we interact with, but we must have the humility to seek to understand. We must have this level of cultural humility to better serve our patients and community.” 

Johnson says her family’s service inspires her daily in her own service endeavors. “My father served his country in the military. My mother served her students in the classroom. My sister served her patients in the COVID ward. I have seen the sacrifices each has made: the year my father was stationed in South Korea away from his family; the nights my mother would leave her classroom as the custodian was locking up; and the difficulty of caring for patients during a global pandemic. Amid their sacrifices, I have seen the determination and compassion with which they graciously served. It was their examples of service and sacrifice that inspired me to pursue a career of service. I have not earned this scholarship because of anything inherent within myself, but because of the powerful examples in my life that inspire me.”

Article credit: Caleb Jones with University of Alabama at Birmingham