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Shanta Zimmer, MD

The Role of Diversity in Achieving Excellence

For Shanta Zimmer, MD, diversity is not about checking a box or meeting quotas. And it’s not something that only people from underrepresented backgrounds should care about. She believes diversity is about the achievement of excellence that only occurs when people from different backgrounds come together to reach a common goal. Here at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (CUSOM), creating a diverse culture takes us a step closer to becoming the best medical school in the country.

Just six weeks into her new role as Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Zimmer is convinced that the School of Medicine is well positioned to achieve this goal.

“The people here are committed to diversity and inclusion,” she said. “Even when they bring up concerns and problems, everyone I’ve met has been very optimistic that we can do better. I haven’t met anyone who has said ‘we can’t do that’—or, ‘I don’t want to do that.’”

A Background in Diversity

Dr. Zimmer’s interest in diversity and inclusion were strengthened while she served as residency program director for the Internal Medicine department at the University of Pittsburgh. While she came into this role with an interest in diversity—her own parents were a mixed race couple who served as her personal role models for social justice—seeing the system through the eyes of her residents helped her better understand how it felt to be the person in the room who was different.

“My minority house staff helped me realize that I needed to really listen to what their experience looked like,” she said. “There is a lot of satisfaction in learning that you can help other people be successful simply by listening to their experience.”

She also had the benefit of a chair who supported her efforts to bring different perspectives to the table. So when she learned about the position at CUSOM, she jumped at the opportunity to further delve into this work. “I became really excited about working with someone like Dr. Reilly, who has a clear vision of diversity.”

For an institution performing ground-breaking research, training future physicians and providing exceptional clinical care, diversity of thought is necessary.

“I can’t think of any activity where diversity of thought doesn’t add value,” she said, adding with a laugh, “Except maybe synchronized swimming. And that’s not the kind of work we’re doing.”

“The main mission of any medical school had better be achieving better health. If you focus just on this mission, people from diverse backgrounds bring about conversations that allow us to better address health disparities. They help to remind those who don’t come from diverse backgrounds to ask better questions and be open to learning from our patients and colleagues.”

Dr. Zimmer also cites data demonstrating how studies authored by people from varied backgrounds tend to have a significant impact, which has been attributed to the differences in perspective.

“It’s about engaging in conversations in which diversity is seen as a strength.” – Shanta Zimmer, MD

Misconceptions About Race, Ethnicity and Beyond

Circumstances often define diversity during our day-to-day activities. As a woman in medicine, Dr. Zimmer is aware that sometimes she brings the element of diversity into a conversation. “In some specialties and circumstances, this element may be provided by a man,” she explains. “While most often we see diversity as metrics—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation—there are also circumstances in which a greater understanding comes from a person with a rural background or someone who is the first in their family to graduate from college.”

Fostering a culture that embraces diversity and seeks opportunity for inclusion is essential.

“Certainly having more diversity in terms of numbers helps your organization move forward, but what’s more important than the numbers is the sense of importance surrounding diversity—to really make sure we all agree diversity takes us another step toward excellence,” she said. “It’s not about filling a deficit and it’s not something that is a problem. It’s about being the best—it’s about having a diverse population with diverse ideas in an environment and community that supports differences of thought.”

Moving Forward

Understanding what’s already happening on campus related to diversity and inclusion has been Dr. Zimmer’s first priority.

“My office is charged with enhancing diversity in recruitment and retention and increasing success in this area at all levels,” she said. “I’m meeting with people who are already doing this type of work and finding ways our office can support their efforts and help build their communities.”

Dr. Zimmer is thrilled with the support she’s received from all levels of the university. “Given the position is full time—double the previously allocated effort—we clearly have the support of leadership. And the faculty, staff and students I’ve met have been so encouraging.”

Invisible No More

A recent event on campus highlighted the need for greater understanding surrounding diversity. The forum was focused on solidarity, and while it wasn’t as heavily attended as she would have liked, it underscored the need for making diversity a priority.

“People shared their own experiences on campus, and I kept hearing how minorities on campus felt invisible. The idea that people of color walk around our campus or come through our hospital doors and feel invisible—it’s something we as a community of physicians need to address. If you can’t feel visible at an institution dedicated to the health of all, something’s wrong,” she said.

“That’s why I’m so happy to be in this role. I want people to know, we see you. I see you. You are important.”

Shanta Zimmer, MD, is an infectious disease physician whose academic career began at Emory University. Most recently she served as vice chair of education for the Department of Medicine and the Internal Medicine Residency Program Director at the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.​