My work was tedious (read -boring). But worse of all, it was lonely. There were days that I might spend 8 hours sitting in a darkroom looking through a microscope measuring tiny vesicles in endothelial cells extracted from rat brains. I was also the only minority faculty in the department, which made for an even lonelier work existence.
To get more contact with actual human people in my everyday work, I decided to start a training program for minority students from the nearby community of East Harlem. Being minority myself, I was keenly aware of the housing projects that I walked by on my way to work, a far contrast from the luxury buildings of the Upper East Side of Manhattan that were closer to Mount Sinai's main entrance. My lab was in a dark, windowless, asbestos-filled, converted garage on the north side of the campus. There were no other people of color in the faculty. I wanted to have colleagues that looked like me, but I soon realized that I would have to "build" them myself. So I got a little money through a grant and created the Short-term Training Program for Minority Students in Environmental and Occupational Medicine. A mouthful, but it would have to do.
With my little team of minority students, I continued doing experiments in my lab. But existential questions about the significance of it all kept plaguing me. Who might it help? One day... maybe.
Then, one day, I asked one of my students to tell me what he thought would be important to investigate in his community. Without hesitation, he said: "asthma". "Why so many people here have asthma." - he said.