Tina Roa, MD, First-Year Radiology Resident

August 30, 2021
Tina Roa, MD, portrait

Whatever specialty I end up going into, I will find the public health spin.

Tina Roa's path to medicine has been anything but straightforward. "Any detour possible, I probably went down it," she laughs. But one thing has remained constant throughout the journey: her drive to have an impact.

The daughter of Dominican immigrants, Roa was born in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, where Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital are located. "Washington Heights is the epicenter of Dominican culture," she says, explaining that even a move to Yonkers when she was seven didn't separate her family from their community. "You need to be 15 minutes from this hospital, 15 minutes from this community, because this is the hub. This is where everything is."

Roa majored in psychology at New York University and graduated with no clear idea about her career. A subway ad for the New York City Teaching Fellows program inspired her next steps, and for two years she taught bilingual science to seventh graders in the South Bronx, most of whom were recent immigrants. Within months of starting her job, she discovered that her role was going to be much bigger than teacher.

"Here I was this bilingual Latina, a very familiar looking face to them, but I also had this science knowledge," she says. "Parents would say, 'You're a science teacher, basically a doctor. Can I show you my kid's rash?'"

Roa decided that the best way for her to serve her community would be to pursue a career in healthcare.

She earned a second bachelor's degree while completing her premed requirements at Hunter College and then enrolled in Columbia's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S) on a five-year track to earn a dual degree in medicine and public health. "Obviously, I love school," she explains. At VP&S, she directed the student-run Asylum Clinic, which provides pro bono medical evaluations to immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. She was also very involved in the summer Global is Local initiative—Digame Bienvenidos—which introduces incoming medical students to the culture, language, and community needs of Washington Heights.

Nevertheless, when it came time to pick a medical specialty, Roa found that she still didn't know what she wanted to do. "I'm thinking, I left my career in teaching and I'm already six years out of the traditional path to medicine," she says. "What am I doing?"

Roa turned to the advice of a friend, who told her to think about a doctor she had met who had influenced her. That was easy. Her section of Foundations of Clinical Medicine, the course where medical students learn skills that relate to the human side of medicine, had been led by Dr. Elise Desperito, assistant professor of radiology at CUIMC. "From the first time I met her I felt there was something special about this doctor," Roa remembers. "And then rotation after rotation after rotation I was like, how is she still my favorite person?"

Over coffee, Roa told her story to Dr. Desperito and talked about what brought her to medicine. "She said, 'Wow, OK. I have a project for you.'"

Dr. Desperito was on her way to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where she had helped organize a Breast Cancer Screening Conference at the State University of Haiti Hospital in collaboration with RAD-AID International. In a country that lacks mammography, her goal was to teach clinicians and nurses how to do a breast exam and to begin the process of bringing mammograms to the women of Haiti.

2018 Breast Cancer Screening Conference, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

By the end of their coffee, Roa was on board to accompany Desperito to Haiti, along with Drs. Ernst Garcon and Pallavi Utukuri. In Haiti, Roa gave a talk entitled “Breast Health Epidemiology in Haiti and Beyond” to a packed audience of university health professional students and faculty, as well as medical staff and hospital administrators. She also helped teach radiology residents how to perform breast ultrasounds.

"The trip was life changing," she says. "It absolutely affirmed for me, this is my field and these are my people. Radiology is it. I am where I'm meant to be right now."

Now in her first months of radiology residency at Columbia, Roa is already thinking about impact. "Maybe there's an osteoarthritis public health application that we're not yet thinking about in MSK. Or lung cancer screening and healthcare disparities in Chest," she says. "The truth is that everything has a public health application."

"Whatever specialty I end up going into, I will find the public health spin."