Home is Where My Heart Resides…
The U.S. Navy Veteran, turned Howard Hughes Medical Institute funded scientist, explains why he’s coming home to obtain his medical education.
By Russell Joseph Ledet
There’s an indescribable feeling that comes from basking in the summer sun in Lake Charles, Louisiana—Sugar-soaked snow cones, boiled crawfish, and that Cajun accent that exudes southern hospitality. Listening to my brothers and sisters crack jokes at cookouts in the front yard, my mom swearing her gumbo is the best thing since the birth of Jesus, and my cousins telling me they are the best at everything are all priceless and irreplaceable moments. Moreover, just the worship experience at Word of Hope is priceless. I can’t quite explain the feeling that these memories evoke, but I know that I miss it. I miss it so much, that every time I think about the time and distance that separates me from all those precious moments, I feel an ache in my stomach. And after reflecting on my long and winding journey—that has often taken me so far from home—I’ve come to realize all I’ve ever wanted to do is return to where I started because it is where my heart resides.
I left Lake Charles, Louisiana at the ripe young age of 18 years old, with the whole world in front of me and the United States Navy to raise me. I left my entire family and everyone I’d ever known behind. By ‘left them’, I don’t just mean physically, but I also left them mentally and emotionally. At the time, I thought I needed separation. I wasn’t quite prepared to go to college or make a real difference in my community; therefore, I ran away. I was searching for security and found it in the U.S. Navy. Although I did my best to remain connected to home, the realities of military life sometimes made those efforts difficult. Despite any difficulties, I’m thankful for my military experience and the mentorship I received from Kerner and Michelle Long and Vivian Moss in Washington, D.C, which set me on my current path.
Heading off Florida for my second assignment, I left Washington, D.C. married to the love of my life, Mallory. Yet, I was still struggling with the idea that I wasn’t home. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Navy life and all it had to offer, including the opportunity to travel across the Atlantic from one astonishing point to another and make friends all over the globe. However, a candid conversation with my wife made me realize that I could do more than just be a sailor and that getting an education wasn’t out of reach for me. She helped me apply to college, enroll in courses, and even picked out my outfit for the first day of classes.
After five long years on active duty, I decided to attend Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). It was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was finally home—or so I thought. During that time, my wife and I bought our first home and had our first daughter, Maleah Ann. I also became a part of one of the greatest organizations on the planet—Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated. I met a lifelong mentor, Dr. Wesley G. Gray, who happened to also be frat. I applied all the knowledge I learned on active duty, only this time it was for earning an education and pursuing biomedical research. I ultimately strolled out of Southern University with what I came for, two Bachelor’s degrees in Chemistry and Biology in four years. And what made me most proud is that I walked away without a single dollar in debt. While I enjoyed those years, our time in Louisiana went by so fast, that it still didn’t feel like home.
Once again, I left Louisiana, but this time I moved to New York City — the Big Apple, the City of Dreams, or the City that Never Sleeps. Why? The answer is simple: who wouldn’t want to be paid to earn their Ph.D. in New York City and at New York University of all places? My time in New York was a dream. Not only was I able to pursue interesting research in my laboratory, but one of my mentors and a dear friend, Dr. Marcus Lambert, also understood and embraced my identity as an African-American male pursuing science, which was important to me. Moreover, I was able to conduct most of my Ph.D. research with a black male— Phillip Thomas also known as Philly Cheese—who had also attended an HBCU, was also from the South, and just understood me. Being able to discuss extremely complicated science with someone who spoke the same language as me, understood my culture, and was my brother’s keeper was incredible. Working alongside Phillip made science so much more digestible and enjoyable. Not only that, we motivated each other and were both awarded the Ford Foundation fellowship and the highly coveted Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Gilliam Fellowship. Over the course of my doctoral studies, Philly Cheese— who just so happens to be sitting right next to me—became my family (my wife even liked him sometimes). Without his friendship, him keeping the lab LIT, and him helping me to figure out the Silver and Gold, I would not have earned my Ph.D.
After earning my Ph.D. in molecular oncology and tumor immunology, I realized that I couldn’t do what I really wanted to do, which was apply what I learned in the lab in a clinical setting. In order to do so, I’d need to become a physician-scientists so I said to myself, “Yeah, I gotta be one of those.” Therefore, one year ago, I decided to apply to medical school; I took the medical college admissions test (MCAT), wrote the essays, applied through AMCAS, and waited for interviews—like everyone else. Anyone who’s gone through the medical school admissions process knows that during this period, you check your email more often than you blink. I will never forget my first invite because it came from Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana while I was speaking with a group of high school students in Brooklyn. The invite came just days after I had submitted my secondary application. I scheduled the interview and was excited that I was at least going to sit face-to-face with someone’s medical school. Fast-forward and I have been accepted to every medical school for which I interviewed, including Tulane, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Louisiana State University- New Orleans and Shreveport, and the BIG ONE, Weill Cornell Medical College.
“Dreams come true” was the only thing I could text Dr. Marcus Lambert when I heard the news; I wept so hard. To put things in perspective, this kid from little, old Lake Charles, Louisiana achieved all of the things you just read and had just been accepted into an Ivy League medical school without a dollar of debt. After hearing the news, I went home and hugged my wife with all my might, momentarily forgetting that she was still healing from stitches she received during the Caesarian section of our second daughter, Mahlina Abri, born February 20, 2018 at 9:22 am—just days before my Cornell acceptance.
When we started the medical school admission process, my wife and I asked the Lord to make our choice as simple as possible, to eliminate our ideas of what is best and order every step. I also asked myself, “what is the point of gaining all this knowledge if I am not going to use it to build up my family and the people of Louisiana—where our roots are?” The answer to our prayer and that question was delivered in an email just over an hour after Mahlina Abri was born.
“We are pleased to announce that you have been designated to receive a Dean’s Scholarship… This award is valued at full tuition and is based upon your previous academic accomplishments and your potential as a physician of the future….Tulane Admissions Team, February 20, 2018 at 10:48 am.”
After sharing the news with my wife, she smiled and exclaimed, “Now, we can go home.”
We decided to go home because it makes sense; it’s where our heart resides, and we have found out the long, hard, and taxing way, it doesn’t want to leave. Moreover, my family needs me—now more than ever. My father and mother need their son, daughter-in-love, and grandchildren back. My brothers and sisters need their big brother, my nephews and nieces need their uncle, my aunts and uncles need their nephew, and Louisiana needs its son back. The decision to return to Louisiana feels right and it’s on our terms.
My goal for writing this article is to leave a trail behind for some kid who’s from a town like Lake Charles; this is to show them that with enough focus, the sky is not the limit—it’s the floor.
For the next four years, I will be taking my talents to Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I will enroll in the MD-MBA program on a full scholarship. Here’s to coming home where we should be—BECAUSE IT IS WHERE OUR HEART RESIDES!
To coming HOME,
Russell Joseph Ledet
Special Thank You!
I’m thankful for the early mentorship and loving advice of Kerner and Michelle Long and Vivian Moss in Washington, D.C. Kerner singlehandedly taught me how to be a husband, a father, and a man. That man engrafted me into his family, taught me how to be a man of God, and gave me an inside exclusive on how to raise daughters with love. For that, I thank you Kerner. Michelle Long saved me from going to jail. Even though she stands a modest 5’0, she knew how to be a mother to me when my mother was too far away to grab me by the neck and make me do the right thing. For that, I thank you Michelle. You saved me from me. Vivian, thank you for being the big sister I needed every day. You helped me more than you will ever know.
To my mother and father, thank you for your love and for encouraging me. To my mother and father-in-love, your patience, grace, and generosity are without a doubt irreplaceable. I’m certain we would not have made it here without the two of you. I know you all won’t be far now, so no one has to fly to NYC to visit us anymore. Just drive down I-10 and stay in Gretna!
There were also many people who contributed to my incredible experience in New York: Joel Oppenheim, Michael Garabedian, Susan Logan, Marcus Lambert, Keith Micoli, Teneisha Olivierre, Vladimir Svetlov, the Clear Direction Mentoring family, scientists galore, my whole laboratory of brilliant minds, and my Jersey family too. I’m sure I missed some, but I thank all of you.
Photo Credits: Babejide Oluwadare
Editor-In-Chief: Daphne Penn