We are pleased to bring you this Conversation with Matt Wickersham, a graduate student who has worked in the lab of our Director Olivier Elemento, Ph.D., and who established the Weill Cornell Medicine Wellness Qlinic, the first student-run clinic focused on addressing the mental health disparities faced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) communities in New York City. Matt was nominated for the Forbes 30 Under 30 list within the Social Justice category.
We hope you enjoy learning more about Matt, his research interests, and the establishment of the Wellness Qlinic.
Question: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Can you tell us where you grew up?
Answer: I grew up in rural Illinois, an hour south of Chicago. I came to New York when I was 18 to attend Columbia University as an undergraduate. Until then I’d spent my entire life in the Midwest, lots of cornfields!
Q: Did you always want to be a doctor?
A: Actually, I wanted to be a teacher. I’m the first of my family to attend college and everyone knew I wanted to be a teacher, so I never had pressure instilled upon me to become a doctor. Which was nice.
When I was in college, I had a great academic advisor who saw how much I enjoyed research and suggested that I consider pursuing an MD-PhD. I honestly didn’t even know what that was. This led me to shadowing mentors in the ICU and learning more about what that world might be like, but I was halfway through college before I knew this was going to be my path.
Q: Was the Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program your top choice?
A: Yes, the Tri-I was always my top choice. The resources of three institutions, the collaborative network, the institutional support, it was all important to me.
When I was in college, I had this idea for a queer mental health clinic. And everyone I spoke with during my Tri-I interview process was very supportive and encouraging. And the opportunities for collaborations were astounding. This is exactly where I wanted to be, and it allowed the Weill Cornell Medicine Wellness Qlinic to take shape.
Q: Can you elaborate on your interest in establishing the Wellness Qlinic?
A: I was a Residential Advisor in college, and one of my students took his own life. That was a pivotal moment for me, as a gay man, to know another gay man who became so depressed and despondent simply over who he was, that he took his own life.
This really made me want to go to med school and start the clinic. If I could save one life, one queer life, and help someone feel normal about who they are, to feel celebrated and not despised, is where it all stemmed from.
I’ve since learned that a lot of queer people are not able to access competent providers they’re comfortable with. Many are uninsured and underinsured. So, a free clinic like ours is desperately needed. This is very personal and meaningful to me.
Q: What services are provided?
A: We have three pillars. The student run queer mental health clinic offers free care to LGBTQ+ people across New York City. We offer an educational and training environment for medical students to gain insights into culturally competent queer healthcare.
Specifically, we offer psychotherapy, medication management, and group therapy. We provide as much opportunity as a medical student wants to lead. Medical students are overseen by Residents and Attendings throughout WCM and NY-P.
The second pillar is research and it consists of three ongoing projects. One focuses on intervening at a community health level to train, educate and provide Naloxone in the city’s gay bars and large club venues to prevent overdoses. Another project looks at the clinical data to better understand the patient population we’re serving. Finally, we developed a queer mental health curriculum that’s online, and is going to be adopted by the PA program at Weill Cornell Medicine. Everyone who participates in the clinic will have to complete the curriculum.
The third pillar is education. We want to educate people at all stages of the medical school: students, Residents, and Attendings. We really want people at all stages of their career to get involved in the clinic.
Q: How do you spread the word about the Wellness Qlinic and its services?
A: That’s a good question! We have a referral network for the clinic throughout the city thanks to partnerships with other academic organizations, community groups like Callen-Lorde, and Columbia’s student-run LGBTQ+ clinic—which focuses on primary care. A lot of our patients come to the clinic from social media. We are very active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, that’s how the word really spreads.
Q: Your work with the Wellness Qlinic has led to you being nominated as a Forbes 30 Under 30 Honoree in the Social Impact category. What does this designation mean to you?
A: I certainly didn’t start the clinic to attract this kind of attention. I started it because it was an urgently needed resource for a very vulnerable population, not for any awards or honors.
But I realized it could be so good for the clinic. More attention can mean more resources, from WCM and others, to help us become more sustainable. Perhaps the attention could even help establish an endowment so we’re not always chasing funding for our programs.
And I guess the attention is also validating. More people will see what we’re doing and care about it. We are a niche clinic right now, but we may ultimately be able to expand beyond focusing on mental health and the queer community. We could encourage other niche clinics to form to focus on specific communities with highly-targeted and unmet healthcare needs.
It would be so great if being nominated by Forbes led to us being able to provide high-quality care to those who need it most, and perhaps create a model that could be adopted by other communities, and even abroad. That would be really satisfying.
Q: Beyond the Wellness Qlinic, what are your research interests?
A: I slowly discovered that wet lab work wasn’t for me, and I had an epiphany that I needed to try something completely different. So, I left my MD-PhD program for 15 months to work as a clinical data analyst at a health tech company city called Flatiron Health, where I saw the power of leveraging the wealth of knowledge that exists in electronic health care data to improve patient outcomes. I came out of that experience wanting to do a computational PhD utilizing machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques on large health records to predict various outcomes.
My psychiatry project is my most intimate research project, and it predicts older adult alcohol misuse. Other projects I’m working on predict adverse events after hip and knee arthroplasties. Another tracks remote monitoring in patients after they get pacemakers or defibrillators. My research really utilizes large health records and predictive analytics.
Q: How did you meet Olivier?
A: I had a friend in the MD-PhD program who rotated with Olivier and had a really good experience with him. I’d heard of his research for years, of course, and while I thought it was very interesting it was also not at all in my wheelhouse.
So, I met with him a few times and pitched him some ideas. He was always very receptive. What I really like about him is that while he has a deep background in academia, he has a very industry-focused mind. His focus on mentorship is also amazing, he is always open to collaboration. He’s relentlessly positive and encouraging.
Q: So, what’s next for you? Will the Wellness Qlinic become your career, or do you have other goals you want to accomplish?
A: Oh, that’s such a loaded question, but in a good way! I’ll be stepping down from the clinic in February to finish medical school. I have a lot of emotions and feelings about that. So, I’m setting up a transition plan to ensure its longevity and sustainability. I have Co-Executive Directors in the clinic who will take it over.
I think I want to use my MD-PhD experience to continue to focus on real world data utilizing the skills I’ve developed combining machine learning and medical knowledge. Where that will take me exactly – we’ll just have to see!
Q: I feel like it would be weird these days to not talk about COVID-19. Has the pandemic affected your research and the work of the Wellness Qlinic?
A: COVID-19 motivated me to come back and do the computational PhD, and it provided me with the space and time to pursue this opportunity.
For the clinic, we had to fully transition care to a telehealth setting. We were able to expand our reach because so many queer college students were facing new mental health challenges, balancing work, and class challenges, moving back home with parents, etc. We really invested in virtual care, and that’s helped us be successful.
Q: What do you like to do in your personal time?
A: Well, I love soccer. Outside of being a student and running the clinic, I’m the President of a nonprofit organization called New York Ramblers. It’s the oldest queer soccer club in the world and was founded in 1980. An ad in the Village Voice invited people to play pick-up soccer near The Rambles in Central Park, hence the name. I’ve built many friendships and much of my social network around the club. I’ve been on the club’s Board since college and am playing my last game tonight!
While I love being around academics, I really enjoy just getting outside to play soccer.
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