From Immigrant Roots to a Budding Career in Oncology, Gladys Magaly Rodriguez, MD, Aims to Advance Health Equity in Vulnerable Populations

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Gladys Magaly Rodriguez, MD, was born in Piedras Negras, Mexico, a city situated along the banks of the Rio Grande. At age 6, her family immigrated to Eagle Pass, Texas, a border town of some 30,000 people that is predominantly Latinx and Spanish speaking. “Even though I lived and attended school in Eagle Pass, we spent every weekend across the border in Mexico with my large family of cousins and aunts and uncles. I like to think I was raised in both places,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

She continued: “For my first 3 years at Benavides Heights Elementary in Eagle Pass, I was placed in bilingual classes to learn English. It took me several years to become fluent in English, but I was pretty advanced in the other subjects because my older sister, Olga, enjoyed teaching me how to read, write, and do math from a very early age.”

“As a first-generation student, attending college was a foreign and scary concept. I don’t recall anyone telling me how to prepare for college.”
— Gladys Magaly Rodriguez, MD

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Although Dr. Rodriguez’s mother did not speak English and couldn’t help with her schoolwork, she would sit next to her every evening offering her caldito de pollo [chicken broth] and té de canela [cinnamon tea]. “My mother offered support in all the ways she could, which really helped me develop confidence. I also had great teachers who supported me and were invested in my education and success, such as my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Roman, and my seventh-grade math teacher, Mr. Saberali, who reminded me to focus and work hard. From elementary school to high school, I joined UIL [University Interscholastic League] competitions in math subjects and was able to compete in regional and state contests,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

Finding Her Own Way

According to Dr. Rodriguez, when she attended Eagle Pass High School, barely 700 of the 2,000 students in her class graduated, in part because of a large dropout rate. “As a first-generation student, attending college was a foreign and scary concept. I don’t recall anyone telling me how to prepare for college. In high school one day, we were told to show up for a test at the gym on a weekend. It wasn’t until after completing the test that I learned it was the SAT and would have a great impact on my college applications,” she remembered.

“I joined the Health Science and Technology Education program in my high school, which introduced me to the health-care professions. Our instructor, who was an RN, was instrumental in my decision to study medicine. She was encouraging and made the field of medicine less of an abstract profession and more of a real possibility. I loved the idea of using my knowledge of science to help improve a patient’s health or save a life. It was such a fulfilling thought,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

She added: “Ms. Mello Lopez formed a team of four students to compete in the Skills USA Health Knowledge Bowl and assigned me as captain of the team. We won first place in the Nationals, and I remember thinking that maybe I was smart outside of my hometown as well. I graduated valedictorian from my high school—following in the footsteps of my sister Olga, who had graduated valedictorian 2 years earlier, and preceding my younger brother Jesus, who graduated valedictorian 2 years later.”

Following Her Sister to Baylor

When the grueling college application process began, Dr. Rodriguez rolled the dice, applying to only one institution—Baylor University—where her older sister was enrolled. “Attending Baylor was a huge culture shock for me. Moving from a town that was about 99% Latinx to a college with less than 10% -Latinx students required a big adjustment. In fact, in college I quickly learned that I spoke English with a Spanish accent, I was a bit of an introvert, and people were confused about my ethnicity (something I have been dealing with in medicine ever since). But I also found a home among the Hispanic Student Association and the small but very tight Latinx community and faculty,” she said.

Dr. Rodriguez entered Baylor as a premed student, majoring in biochemistry. Despite the initial culture shock, she acknowledges the school offered a rich educational experience, and she felt strong support from the staff and faculty. “My biology professor selected me to join his research team, and my human physiology professor chose me for a scholarship for excelling in his class. Baylor is also a Baptist institution, and although I was not raised Baptist, but rather, Catholic, it nurtured my own faith journey,” she said.

Taking a Friend’s Advice

When it came time to apply to medical school, Dr. Rodriguez originally intended to stay close to home and sent applications only to schools in Texas. However, as she began her interview process, a close friend suggested she spread her wings and apply to some highly regarded universities outside of Texas, including the Ivy League schools.

“I didn’t think I’d have a chance, so I applied to only two non-Texas schools, and to my amazement, both offered me interviews. The first one, Yale School of Medicine, would entail some pricey travel expenses, so I initially crossed it off my list, but Yale was very accommodating about the schedule and finding me a place to stay, so I interviewed there after all. It was during a snowstorm in New Haven, and my host was a Black student who made me feel very at ease,” Dr. Rodriguez said.

“My interviews there were amazing,” she continued. “One interviewer was a Latino doctor who made me feel like I belonged and would be welcomed at Yale. So I decided to leave my comfort zone in Texas and attended Yale School of Medicine, which in hindsight was probably one of the best decisions of my life,” she said.

Dr. Rodriguez commented that medical school was challenging on a personal level, and she had to negotiate a student body of extremely bright people, many of whom were worldly and already accomplished in many disciplines. She recounted: “A surgeon once asked me while we were in the OR, ‘Students who are accepted to Yale usually have amazing accomplishments—some are professional athletes, others are world travelers, others have made amazing discoveries, others are authors. What is your accomplishment?” And I did not know what to answer. I felt very small. I had none of those accomplishments. When he kept pressing, I started doubting myself and began to experience imposter syndrome. I wondered if they had made a mistake by accepting me. After a while I replied, ‘I hope they accepted me just for being me.’”

A Valued Mentor

Early on in her studies, Dr. Rodriguez was fortunate to find a mentor, Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, MHS, a renowned health services researcher with a focus in health equity, known for her passion in advancing the care of underserved and racial and ethnic minority patients. “When I met Dr. Nunez-Smith, I learned about health-care inequities in vulnerable patients. I also learned that Eagle Pass, my hometown, was considered an underserved area and that there was a lot of work to be done there in this field. I wondered if my own family members were receiving less optimal health care for being Latinx or for living in an underserved area. That thought really bothered me,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

Her first project with Dr. Nunez-Smith was a qualitative study exploring the health-care experiences of Latinx patients with limited English proficiency. “That study initiated my interest in how language and health literacy impacts patients’ health. Researchers doing work in health equity were mostly in the field of general medicine, so I knew I would need to pursue a residency in internal medicine but had not yet decided on oncology at that time,” she said.

Eye-Opening Experiences

Dr. Rodriguez took a fifth year in medical school, during which she had the opportunity to do a 6-week rotation in Kampala, Uganda, where she witnessed first-hand the passion of doctors delivering care in a resource-limited setting. “I visited their cancer center, which was a small building with many patients lying on the floor, with big malignant masses protruding from different areas of their bodies; many were simply waiting to die. I still have that image in my head.”

She continued: “I also was part of the leadership of the HAVEN Free Clinic, which is a student-run free clinic that partners with Yale to treat uninsured (mainly Latinx) patients. We had patients who did not get cancer screening in time because of their lack of insurance and were now dealing with an advanced disease. One patient with esophageal cancer had to travel back to Mexico to get care because of a lack of access to treatment. These cases made me realize that health inequities existed within subspecialties, too,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

A Decision to Pursue Oncology

Dr. Rodriguez attended the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) for her internal medicine residency; given its diversity, the school fit well with her health-care equity aspirations. “My first goal was to be an excellent internal medicine doctor, and I received superb training at UCSF. There were many inspiring doctors and researchers doing work in the health equity field there. I was impressed to find that people dedicated their lives to improve the health of vulnerable populations, especially at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital,” she said.

“Attending Baylor was a huge culture shock for me. Moving from a town that was about 99% Latinx to a college with less than 10% Latinx students required a big adjustment.”
— Gladys Magaly Rodriguez, MD

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She continued: “Although I struggled with what career path to take, by the second year of my residency, I had decided to pursue oncology as my subspecialty, largely because I found it to be such an exciting field with so many new advances and treatment. But more important, oncologists treat a vulnerable population dealing with a life-changing diagnosis. I looked at that as an opportunity to accompany them in this journey.”

Oncology Fellowship

After her residency, Dr. Rodriguez worked for 1 year as a bone marrow transplant and general medicine hospitalist at UCSF, which “gave me time to rest and travel before starting fellowship.” In the summer of 2019, Dr. Rodriguez began her oncology/hematology fellowship at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Asked about her decision to attend Stanford, Dr. Rodriguez said: “I was drawn to the fact that a woman of color was Program Director, which is rare. I was also looking forward to working with Dr. Manali Patel, a thoracic oncologist and a very successful researcher in health services research and health equity. Through the advocacy, support, and mentorship of Dr. Patel, I have also been able to carve out a research path for my career. Learning about Dr. Patel’s own trailblazing career path and successful funding history inspired me to commit to the field of cancer care equity research. I have learned that mentorship opens doors and can make a difference in our careers. I am very grateful that I found a mentor I still have so much to learn from.”

With the guidance of her mentor, Dr. Rodriguez led a formative qualitative study among Latinx populations in an agricultural community in California and identified severe gaps of knowledge in basic cancer topics including precision medicine, cancer diagnosis and staging, and advance care planning. “With the direction of a community advisory board, we then designed and conducted a randomized controlled study to evaluate the efficacy of a community health worker intervention regarding patient knowledge of precision medicine. These projects motivated me to create novel interventions to overcome these disparities, such as the use of culturally and linguistically tailored digital educational tools to reduce language and literacy barriers among Latinx patients with cancer, which was the subject of my 2022 ASCO Young Investigator Award [YIA] research,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

Asked to elaborate on her fellowship work, Dr. Rodriguez said: “I continued to pursue my passion in health equity research with a focus on evaluating large databases and conducting interventions using community-engaged research methods. Aside from providing excellent and compassionate clinical care, my goal is to become an independently funded researcher and conduct research that will identify gaps and unmet needs of underserved patients, so they can equally benefit from advances in cancer care. Through this work, I aim to identify and develop scalable interventions to address cancer inequities through community engagement. I hope to offer culturally and linguistically tailored tools to Latinx patients and their family members to activate them, educate them, and empower them in their cancer care. With funding support from Stanford, I had the opportunity to complete a Master’s degree in epidemiology and clinical research during my fellowship.”

Dr. Rodriguez graduated from her fellowship in July 2022. With the support of her mentor, Dr. Patel; Division Chief Heather Wakelee, MD; Stanford Cancer Institute; and grants such as ASCO’s YIA, she has the opportunity to stay on to complete projects prior to the next step in her career. “I am drawn to complex diseases requiring chronic, multidisciplinary management and found work in gastrointestinal [GI] malignancies particularly appealing. GI cancers are overrepresented in Latinx populations, and inequities in screening, timely diagnosis, precision medicine testing, supportive care, timely treatment, survival, and end-of-life care continue to prevail. I look forward to contributing to advancing the field of health equity in GI oncology,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

A Personal Journey

Latinxs make up nearly 40% of the population of California, yet just 5% of the state’s physicians are Latinx. Asked to reflect on her own experience, Dr. Rodriguez replied: “I think my experience as a Latina in medicine has some similarities to my experience as a Latina in oncology. The next step always feels uncertain and scary. It often felt like I was stepping into unknown territory and was just hoping I would be okay. There is a fear of failure mixed with a great desire to succeed. Being a Latina who is introverted was often confused with a lack of confidence or lack of knowledge, even though I have been very well trained and was competent taking care of very sick patients independently, had Honors in my rotations, did well in all the board exams, excelled in my classes for my Master’s degree, and successfully obtained internal and external research grants. I still sense I have to do more to prove myself.”

“[B]eing a Latina in oncology has also allowed me to be an advocate for and feel connected to Latinx patients with cancer.”
— Gladys Magaly Rodriguez, MD

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Dr. Rodriguez continued: “At times, imposter syndrome would take over, and there were not many Latinx role models I could reach out to for help. This can cause isolation. My co-fellows or co-residents who were women of color became my closest friends and confidants with whom I shared these feelings. Thinking back on the 12 years I have been in medical training, I have been trained by only one Latinx faculty and no Latinx oncologists. But being a Latina in oncology has also allowed me to be an advocate for and feel connected to Latinx patients with cancer.”

She added: “I am very grateful for the ASCO YIA. It is such a great recognition and offers validation to the work and research I’ve been doing. It was the first full external grant I had applied for and had a lot of support from my mentors and my fellowship program. The YIA has opened doors and has encouraged me to continue with this work. It has allowed me to form connections and network with amazing, trailblazing researchers across the country with similar interests. I am very grateful to Dr. Narjust Florez and Dr. Gladys Rodriguez (we share the same name, but we’re not related!) for establishing the YIA for Outstanding Latina Researchers.”

Advice for Other Young Oncologists

Asked to share some hard-earned advice, Dr. -Rodriguez commented: “For starters, finding a diverse group of mentors in oncology (as well as outside the field) is key. Try to find a clinical mentor, a research mentor, an advisor, and someone you can reach out to for personal questions or life issues. The more people rooting for your success, the better. Cultivate these relationships, and as your career advances, reach out to them to update them on your journey—and make sure to thank them for being part of it.”

She continued: “Also consider joining a research team early on and contribute to a study. Oncology is a big field with many subspecialties—as you gain more exposure to the different subspecialties, you start forming a better idea of what field you may want to focus on. Something I wished I knew about earlier were all the medical student opportunities (research or clinical) already in place. ASCO has many of these opportunities for medical students to join.”

Work-Life Balance

Asked how she decompresses from the rigors of her budding career, Dr. Rodriguez said: “Prepandemic, I enjoyed traveling with my husband, Armando Huaringa. I picked up running with him and ran my first (and only) marathon my first year of fellowship. We enjoy hiking with the amazing Bay Area views. We like going to national parks, trying new restaurants, having Zoom chats with friends across the country, cooking, taking care of a little garden, and watching shows about delicious foods that exist around the world. We hope to one day make it to Oaxaca to try out its exquisite, rich moles.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Rodriguez reported no conflicts of interest.

Dr. Rodriguez is a Postdoctoral Oncology Fellow and Hematology Fellow in Medicine at Stanford University.