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Dr Sonal Bhatia

An Indian girl growing up in Mexico City meant standing out, being teased and coping with uneducated comments from others. “Being different led to pain,” recalled the Chief Medical Officer, Rare Disease at Pfizer. “I looked different and dressed different. I had to constantly prove that I was a part of the community.” And while she survived some awful experiences during her primitive years, it also taught her grit.

When Dr. Bhatia turned 13 years old, she and her family moved to Toronto, Canada where the veil of rejection lifted, and she became immersed in a community of diversity. She celebrated the change by founding the Unity Club — a platform for students to share their uniqueness. Years later, Dr. Bhatia was equally surprised and invigorated when she arrived in Dominica to begin medical school. “I met people from all walks of life and we quickly became a family. It was a support system where everyone lent a helping hand. Any feeling of isolation was gone and the feeling of fitting in was instant. It was a huge positive mindset.”

Dr. Bhatia’s career aspirations began to change during residency when a close friend developed breast cancer and passed away. “I was so frustrated,” she explained. “I thought — we know science and we have medicines, but all we can do is give these certain medications. We can’t prescribe what we don’t have. I began to question — are we really serving patients or are we just prescribing what was there and not thinking about the future?”

Making the biggest difference

That led to her working for big pharma, an industry that hadn’t been in her purview as beneficial until she realized it was the key to providing physicians with more breakthrough medicines as science evolved. “I knew right then that I wanted to be part of this community that could reach a large population level and ensure equity to the populations that aren’t traditionally focused on. I wanted to be part of the equation that solves for rare and different diseases. We help prolong life and ensure a better quality of life — it was the holy grail of my medical days. I could help the entire medical community jump through hurdles. This is where I was going to make the biggest difference.”

And the purpose-driven leader has done just that. Dr. Bhatia has been instrumental in a variety of groundbreaking medical advancements including an oral anticoagulant and now is knee-deep in the promise of gene therapy. “We’re opening Pandora’s box to utilize learnings and create medicine through the development process so we can change how we view diseases and transform a patient’s journey. Science keeps evolving. We fail and learn more. Patients have so much hope and we’re figuring out how we can meet their hope.”

The board member of the American Heart Association (AHA) and NYC’s AHA Go Red for Women, also mentors at Pfizer and STEM Goes Red, a campaign dedicated to inspiring young women to pursue STEM careers and live their dreams. The active mom of two maintains a healthy lifestyle in New York City and enjoys traveling, reading and crafting new cocktails. As Dr. Bhatia reflects on her journey, she offers advice to current RUSM medical students.

“Don’t assume your end journey is being in an office and seeing patients. If your journey doesn’t feel right, take a pause and try to pivot to a new path Define your journey to meet your purpose and if you know what you want, be the one to lead it, even if it’s not tried and tested.”

In 2020, 91% of RUSM students passed the initial step of the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE®) on the first attempt. And in 2022-2023, results show yet another strong year for RUSM with a 97% first-time residency attainment rate* thus far. Located on the island of Barbados and with a network of more than 15,000 alumni, RUSM is one of the largest providers of doctors for the U.S. healthcare system. RUSM graduates practice in all 50 states and in Puerto Rico.

*First time residency attainment rate is the percent of students attaining a 2023-24 residency position out of all graduates or expected graduates in 2022-23 who were active applicants in the 2023 NRMP match or who attained a residency position outside the NRMP match.