By Katherine Petrunovich

When Janice Bonsu, MD candidate, was 6, she and her family moved from their home in Kumasi, Ghana, to the United States in search of a better life. But it was the memories of her homeland that ultimately guided her to pursue a career in medicine.

“I wanted to be a doctor because I saw that doctors were the ones in the villages and communities making a difference,” Bonsu, class of ’21, says. “It was like the superhero’s job.”

And so began journey in medicine that, for Bonsu, is increasingly being shaped by her desire to also pursue health policy roles that improve the health care of underserved communities. 

Exploring the link between science and health policy

For her undergraduate degree work, Bonsu attended Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in neuroscience and conducted research in the lab of renowned neurosurgeon Alfredo Quinones-Hinjosa, MD, whose work examines how the body’s cells can be used to fight brain cancer. Bonsu had two research publications under Quinones-Hinjosa.

At the same time, Bonsu was drawn to active participation in leadership and policy activities, serving in student senate her sophomore year, as executive vice-president during her junior year and as the first black woman elected as the executive president of the student government association in Johns Hopkins history her senior year.

But it was post-graduation in 2015, in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots that rocked Baltimore, when Bonsu engaged in her first community research project that she experienced the critical link between medicine and community. She was interviewing Baltimore city youth as part of a Hearing Their Voices project, and she was surprised to realize that most of the youth’s concerns related to health care.

“The things they were complaining about weren’t criminal justice issues—they were public health issues,” she says. “That message really resonated with me.”

A child of immigrants, Bonsu says the young people’s concerns led her to consider these issues more globally. She pursued a Master of Public Health at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on a global health research project in Botswana that investigated the ethics of conducting research trials in countries outside the United States. Her motivation for conducting the study came from a community member who told her, “We want to be a part of research so that one day we hope that people far away from us won’t be making decisions about us, without us.”

After that experience, Bonsu knew that medicine was the way to address those concerns.

Opportunities at Ohio State

Bonsu says she was drawn to the College of Medicine because of the rigorous curriculum and supportive environment. “I felt that Ohio State understood physicians’ responsibility in understanding their patients’ social determinants of health and that the college was positioned to train me in a more comprehensive way.”

Bonsu also commends Quinn Capers IV, ’91 MD, and dean of admissions, who has overseen her work and has been her mentor for the past two years. In fact, she says, he made coming to Ohio State an easy decision.

“When I came for the interview here, I was seeing women deans and deans of color. This stood out to me because it’s not the norm at other institutions. It was clear to me that diversity wasn’t just a buzzword, but an already mastered practice. It was clear that if I came to Ohio State, the opportunities would be endless.”

Capers introduced her to Daniel Addison, MD, a cardio-oncologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, and assistant professor at the Ohio State College of Medicine. Addison’s research focuses on cancer patients who have or are at risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Addison cites Bonsu’s insights and her advanced skills in literature review, data collection, analysis and interpretation, which led to the publication of an article for which she was the lead author.

The study discussed how the exclusion of the 30 percent of new cancer patients with CVD from cancer therapy clinical trials limits the evidence to guide the care of these individuals, who also statistically have poorer outcomes than those without CVD. As both cancer and cardiovascular disease are leading causes of mortality and morbidity nationwide, Bonsu, Addison and the research team hope that their findings assert the need to specifically study this subset of the cancer population.

“Janice has strong potential,” Addison says. “She’s been exemplary for our group.”

Bonsu received a U.S. Air Force health professional scholarship to attend Ohio State. The scholarship, she says, is a natural fit: “It’ll allow me to now give back to this country that has given my family so much, but it’ll also position me to address the public health issues that affect our military, veterans and their families.” She’s thankful for the scholarship, which will help alleviate the cost of a medical education.

Bonsu’s public policy interests have continued during her medical school studies. She’s a senator for the Ohio State Inter-Professional Council and, in 2018, former Gov. John Kasich appointed her to a two-year term on the Ohio State Board of Trustees. She says the board position gives her an opportunity to learn more about how public universities function and to gain experience in crisis management, finances and strategic planning.

Looking to the future

Bonsu, whose clinical specialty interests include cardiology, hopes to expand her work with underserved communities in Columbus and continue to be a mentor for minority students like herself.

Currently, she’s working with her mentor, Trudy Bartley, associate vice president of local government and community relations for Ohio State, to identify opportunities with Bartley’s longstanding work to revitalize Columbus’ near east side.

“Many of the cousins I grew up with in Ghana were just as smart as I am but didn’t benefit from the abundance of opportunity I’ve had here in the U.S,” she says.

“Certainly, America isn’t perfect. Growing up as an immigrant in this country, you learn about injustice at a young age. I believe that healthcare inequity is a civil rights issue, and I see my future work as a physician and in health policy as my way of working to dismantle that.”

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