20 Years, 20 Leaders: Dr. Danielle Laraque-Arena


On combining science and service

Our connection to the experiences of those who came before helps to define the present and future of medicine. The Foundation is celebrating 20 years by joining in conversation with 20 women leaders in all aspects of medicine to understand their stories and how their experiences will shape the next generation.

Our connection to the experiences and strengths of those who came before helps to define the present and future of medicine. The goal of this series is to join in conversation with the industry’s female pioneers, leaders, and mentors to understand their stories and how those experiences can be transferred.

Dr. Danielle Laraque-Arena is President of The State University of New York Upstate Medical University as well as the CEO of Upstate Medical Center. She is a Professor of Pediatrics, Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Sciences, Public Health & Preventive Medicine. She was elected to the American Pediatric Society in 2005 and is a nationally and internationally recognized expert in injury prevention, child abuse, adolescent health risk behaviors, and in the issues critical to health care delivery in under-served communities globally.

Why did you choose to go into medicine?

For the usual reasons. How does one make an impact? How does one combine something that is intellectually stimulating with a career that makes a difference? Our path is often crafted by the context of our lives. My father was a writer. My mother was a woman of character and focus. Both my parents created an environment that allowed me to never see limitations or impasses in anything I wanted to do. I chose medicine because it combined what I thought were my passions and my abilities.

What’s your core philosophy as a woman in medicine?

As a physician, I have sought to combine science with service. I believe it’s important for our knowledge to be grounded on principles of conscientious behavior, and to be responsible to those we serve.

What motivates you?

For me, it’s doing the right thing. Renee Jenkins, the first African-American president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a dear friend, gave me a pin that says: “Fearless leader.” Medicine today is a business. It is often self-centered, not patient- and family-centered. We need to be fearless and do the right thing in order to steer medicine to influence our choices as a society and improve the lives of individuals and for the collective good.  

How do you motivate others?

Each of us is different. To motivate others, we need to respect them, have people identify their strengths, and match them to what they love. Then give them the resources and support they need to achieve excellence.  

What challenges have you had to overcome?

I don’t allow external conditions to influence my internal perspective. My view of the world is not in terms of obstacles. I’ve experienced academic racism and I believe there are major gender biases in this world. There were institutional barriers placed in my path early on and I was able to ignore them and move beyond them. It’s not to say necessarily that the path forward is easy, but I have never accepted the concept of “the glass ceiling.” Had I internalized these limiting perspectives, I believe it would have changed my view of the world and its infinite possibilities.

Humans fail. Please share a time when you failed and what you did next to move forward. 

Every time I have had a disappointment—and we all have them—I certainly have gone through the defeatist attitude momentarily of saying “poor me.” Then I get a little angry, analyze the situation, see if there is a kernel of truth in that rejection that I can learn from, and go forward. If there have been times I have chosen to do something but for a variety of reasons was denied, I’ve found that the different path crafted was often better. Nonetheless, there have been defining moments that have steered my career in a different direction. Applying my determination to achieve success has led to surprising new ventures.

Who was your most important mentor and why?

My mother was my most important mentor. She died in 1998 of ovarian cancer. My father was a social butterfly. My mother was more reserved and it took me some time to recognize her silent strength. She understood danger. She was extremely brave and supported my father in leaving Haiti and a corrupt government. I learned later in life that she was the confidant for many people. She did not judge, yet she would reflect with you. When I was in my late teens, I had a hot petri dish that I was going to wash in the sink. She told me that it was going to break if placed in cold water. I was defiant and proceeded to put the dish in the sink under water. Of course, it broke. She never said ‘I told you so.’ It was that kind of wisdom that I admired. One other point: Nothing would come between her and her children. As a pediatrician, I have had deep conversations with women whose children have been abused. I remember telling a mother that nothing can come between her and her role as the protector of her child. That is the root of everything.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

At the end of the day, I want to sleep with my head on the pillow knowing I have done what I think is right. My father said that. To do what you think is right, no matter how hard it is.

What’s the most influential book you’ve read in the last five years?

There are a few, because I love to read and am constantly reading. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I’ve read passages of that to students. But my favorite is a poem by my son Marc Anthony Arena, called “For.” His pen name is Troubadour.

How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?

For me, success is reaching a peaceful place within this world. In my career, I’ve been successful but that would not have been enough. My life has to have made a difference to my parents, my brothers, my husband, my son and daughter, my granddaughter, my friends, to my patients and now to those I lead. I hope to leave something behind.

What advice would you give to the next generation of women in medicine?

I don’t think anyone should define us but we should never forget the past, the women who made it possible for us all to pursue this healing craft of medicine. When a young woman tells me she is not a feminist, I find that disconcerting.