When Jean Ford was 17, he remembers someone asking what he planned to choose for his college major. He recalls replying, “I have enjoyed so many things, but I think I'm going to be a psychologist or a philosopher.”
His mother disagreed.
“She said, ‘No, you’re going to be a doctor,’” he recalls. “I said: ‘Impossible.’”
Evidently, it must have been possible. Today, Jean G. Ford, MD, is Paul J. Johnson Chair of Medicine at Einstein Healthcare Network. His resume prior to joining Einstein is equally impressive. He was chair of the Department of Medicine at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, associate professor of medicine and oncology in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and an assistant professor at Columbia University.
What’s more, two of his brothers are doctors and three of his sisters are nurses.
Dr. Ford was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, one of nine children. The quest for excellence was clearly a family affair.
There was plenty of inspiration in the form of a cousin, who was the first member of the family to become a physician. “She was a strong role model for us,” he says.
But there was something more: throughout his childhood, there was a strong emphasis on science and math—two of the quartet of disciplines collectively known as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
"The inspiration has to come from seeing people doing things with elegance, and sometimes seeing things that we thought were unreachable.”
“We lived in an amazing neighborhood in Port-au-Prince,” Dr. Ford recalls. “It was a working-class neighborhood. In my family there were nine kids. My aunt lived across the street with her six kids. She and her husband were both schoolteachers and on Saturdays we had enrichment activities. There would be math drills and other fun educational activities. My uncle would check to see how we did with our multiplication tables. There was a culture early on that revered excellence and there was a definite expectation that we would do well in school. I remember getting in trouble because I was ranked fourth in my class at some point. Somehow I had gotten caught slacking off, so the response was, ‘You could have done better.’”
Dr. Ford attended an elementary school run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart in Port-au-Prince. High achievement was expected there overall, but there were specific expectations that students master science and mathematics.
From there it was on to a Jesuit high school, where science and mathematics skills were emphasized just as strongly, if not more.
“Science and math had so much value,” Dr. Ford remembers. “We were expected to learn literature and history and all that, but we were expected to do well in science and math all along. Once that was set, it was like hard wiring.”
After Dr. Ford and his family moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., he attended John Jay High School, where the teaching of science and math was equally valued. He later attended Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., and it was there that his career plans started to come into focus thanks to Dr. Mary Newton.
“She taught physiology. She was a very clear lecturer, and she made the subject exciting. That’s was the hook for me,” Dr. Ford says. “That’s what really got me started. Then I went to Columbia and I had some amazing teachers there. By the time I got to medical school, I was being exposed to future Nobel Laureates—Eric Kandel (winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) and Richard Axel (2004 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine). There is a certain elegance when science is taught by people who know it and live it and are passionate about it. That’s what grabbed me—all those people.”
Inspiring classes are necessary to the successful spread of STEM, of course, but, Dr. Ford suggests, you can’t place too high a premium on strong, passionate role models of the kind who captured his imagination, from childhood on into adulthood.
“If kids are put in a context where they can use their imagination and learning becomes fun, it doesn’t take a lot of technology,” he says. “I suspect there are educators who know techniques for doing that. Part of this skill to share with kids is how to go about satisfying their curiosity, but the issue of role models is also very important. For many kids who are not exposed to people who have had professional success, that’s hard to come by, but there are certain kinds of programs that do make a difference.
“I think we all thrive on inspiration. We want to do good things, but sometimes we don’t know the way. Sometimes we think there might be a way, but we don’t have hope. The inspiration has to come from seeing people doing things with elegance, and sometimes seeing things that we thought were unreachable.”