Nation & World

Training a physician’s eye on policy

3 min read

Three years into his medical school career, Joe Ladapo had a revelation, but it wasn’t in a medical class, it was in economics.

Ladapo, an M.D./Ph.D. student graduating this spring from Harvard Medical School, felt an instant connection with the material and the way of thinking he found as he studied economics for the first time.

The class was at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where Ladapo was taking a year off from his medical studies for a planned master’s degree in public policy. After the year was over, however, he enjoyed studying policy so much that he decided to pursue a doctorate instead.

“It was a difficult decision because I didn’t want to extend school,” Ladapo said. “[But] something was speaking to me from the material. I felt a deep interest in pursuing it further. It would seem like an injustice not to pursue it further.”

So Ladapo extended his stay at Harvard another three years to complete a doctorate in health policy, which he says is the perfect complement to his interest in helping people through medicine.

Along the way, Ladapo published research on utilization of new CT scanner technology in emergency rooms to assess possible heart attacks, on the adoption of the new scanner technology in hospitals across the country, and on the ramifications of increased screening of newborns for disease.

Ladapo, who is doing a residency in internal medicine next year at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was born in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 5. His father, a microbiologist, brought his family to the United States to continue his own studies and today teaches biology at North Carolina Central University.

Ladapo said he was interested in math and computers in high school but decided on medical school during his undergraduate years at Wake Forest University, where he graduated in 2000 with a degree in chemistry. The ability to see people face to face and know he’s helping them is what drew him to medicine.

“I really like being on the front lines and seeing … that I’m making a difference,” Ladapo said.

Over the eight years since he first arrived at Harvard, Ladapo said he’s undergone such a profound transformation that he might as well have had a brain transplant.

Along the way, he’s gotten involved in various projects that interest him. Early on in his Harvard career, he was one of the founders of SEAM, Students for Environmental Awareness in Medicine. The nonprofit organization, which has chapters at several other universities, aims to organize medical students who are concerned about the environment.

Ladapo has also worked to help others in nonmedical ways. He found mentoring middle school and high school students through the YMCA particularly rewarding.

“I really love being able to help them understand things better and help them academically at school,” Ladapo said.

Looking back at his time at Harvard, Ladapo said he feels lucky to have been part of a community made up of talented, energetic people with the resources and support to pursue a wide variety of innovative ideas.

“I feel lucky to have been here and able to benefit and grow in this tremendously rich environment,” Ladapo said.