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Learn, Work Hard & Serve

February 1, 2019

During assembly on Friday, February 1 and as part of the STEM Speaker Series, Dr. Will Ross spoke to students about his decision to be a person of action and encouraged students to take advantage of the opportunities they have been given and to assume responsibility for the collective good. Ross is a professor of medicine (division of nephrology) and associate dean for diversity at Washington University. (See end for more.) 

Ross said he wanted to talk about "why I do the things I do. ... I want to share my story." He explained that by nature he is introspective, even geek-ish, but he decided to be a person of action — not because it's comfortable but because there are things that need to be done. He drew some of his inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at a time of challenge and controversy." Ross grew up in poverty in Memphis during the 60s. Two very specific events drove his future: when his sister was denied access to health care when in acute need and when a friend was killed in front of him. "I had to be a person who said 'this is enough.' I had to be an instrument of change." He could not simply study and be a physician without also working to improve access to care for everyone who needs it.

To illustrate, Ross shared three personal vignettes:

  • When he was a resident at Vanderbilt Hospital, a middle-aged white man, who needed attention for a serious infection, told Ross not to lay a hand on him and called Ross the N word. Ross said he remembered MLK, reached for the moral high ground and decided to have a cross-cultural conversation. Bottom line, Ross asked for an apology and got one. "It's important to do the right thing, at the right time — especially when no one else is watching."
  • In the late 90s, the mayor of St. Louis closed down the St. Louis Regional Medical Center for budgetary reasons. Ross, who was the medical director of the facility, understood the budget constraints but totally disagreed with the decision —  it made more sense (even financially) to take care of people at the early stages of health problems than to wait until those troubles were extreme. Ross wrote a scathing editorial criticizing the mayor's decision and calling for a leader with a strong moral compass. Ross lost his job but said if he had it to do over again, he would have spoken sooner and more boldly. "You have to call out the truth."
  • Ross is part of the movement to unify the City of St. Louis with St. Louis County. He said this is a pivotal time for St. Louis: We're losing people, companies. We're known as an area with high crime and low tolerance for diversity. St. Louis should come together. A centrist at heart, Ross doesn't believe in absolutes. "I can see both sides" of most debates, and there's rarely just one way to achieve our goals. 

Ross acknowledged that he has had great opportunities and can't accept those gifts without recognizing his responsibility to society. He was given an opportunity (in education) that others weren't. "I wasn't the smartest ... but I worked hard and kept my foot on the accelerator." He reminded students that they have a profound gift (being at Burroughs), a high intellect, enormous potential. "Don't waste it." 


Will Ross, MD, MPH is associate dean for diversity, principal officer for community partnerships, and professor of medicine in the Division of Nephrology at Washington University School of Medicine. While overseeing diversity and community affairs over the past two decades, Dr. Ross has recruited and developed a diverse group of medical students, residents, and faculty. Ross helped establish free local medical clinics such as the Saturday Free Clinic and Casa de Salud, and he has worked nationally and globally to promote health equity. He is a charter and founding member of the St. Louis Regional Health Commission, Chairman of the St. Louis City Board of Health, and served as Chairman of the board of the Missouri Foundation for Health. He is a founding member of the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, a magnet high school for students pursuing careers in medicine and biomedical sciences, and co-founder of the Program in Public Health, in Cap Haitien, Haiti. He is former member of the Centers for Disease Control Health Committee on Health Disparities and the founding associate editor of Frontiers in Public Health Education and Promotion. Dr. Ross has written numerous scientific publications and book chapters and is co-author of the Lexington Press book Poverty and Place. Ross earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and an MD from the Washington University School of Medicine. He completed a residency in Internal Medicine at Vanderbilt and a Renal Fellowship at Washington University. He also completed a master’s degree in epidemiology at Saint Louis University.