During her more than 20 years as associate dean of studies and preprofessional adviser at Barnard, Dean Esther Rowland helped shape the lives of hundreds of students who went on to careers in the health sciences and legal professions. From 1973 until her retirement in 1995, Rowland advised and supported a generation of women by guiding and counseling them on their class schedules, applications to graduate school, and postgraduate careers.
“My special interest has been to enlarge the pool of women and minorities in both [the medical and legal professions]. And indeed the pool of women went from 10% to 50% during the years I was active — not because of me, but with some help from me,” Rowland wrote in a biographical note for the Woods Hole Historical Museum.
To honor Rowland and the profound impact she had on Barnard women in the sciences, two of her former advisees, Elena Mara Kamel ’80, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern Medicine, and Annabelle Santos Volgman ’80, professor of medicine and senior attending physician at Rush Medical College and Rush University Medical Center, collaborated to create the Dean Esther Rowland Scholarship Fund. This endowed fund, launched in 2014, provides financial aid support for Barnard students interested in pursuing a graduate degree in the health professions. Nearly 80 donors have contributed a total of $236,590 to the fund in recognition of the impact Rowland had on their pursuit of medical careers and on the lives of Barnard students interested in the sciences.
“Esther was a forward thinker for her time who helped so many women find their path in this world,” said Kamel. “She was a force determined to support women scientists during an era when women were in the minority and faced an uphill battle to be accepted in the world of science.”
Knowing this battle wasn’t hers alone to fight, Rowland started to pay it forward. After she learned that Volgman was determined to become a doctor, the dean alerted her to a research opportunity at what was then called the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. “I worked with a neurologist who taught me how to do clinical research, write an abstract, and present it to other clinical scientists at a neurology conference,” said Volgman. “This experience was exhilarating, and I have been a clinical investigator ever since. Dean Rowland changed my life.”
When Rowland hosted a party for Columbia’s neurology department — chaired by her husband, Lewis — the dean invited Volgman to attend, which gave her the opportunity to network with neurologists who eventually became Volgman’s mentors and sponsors. “I owe so much to Dean Rowland for guiding me in the right direction,” said Volgman.
Kamel, whose Holocaust-surviving immigrant parents were unfamiliar with the American system of medical school applications, said that Rowland guided her “like a parent — nurturing and stern all in one.”
As a French major and chemistry minor who was also interested in languages and music, Kamel was not initially looking at medicine. “Esther helped me see how my rich background could be an asset in helping patients and working in a multicultural environment,” she said. Rowland encouraged Kamel to pursue medicine but also insisted that she stay focused on the other interests that enriched her life.
“Esther was unrelenting in supporting female students in front of medical school admission committees across the country,” said Kamel. “Her students were motivated and supported by her to become the next generation of scientists who could change the world. She told us there was nothing we could not achieve if we tried hard enough.”
Mercedes Jacobson arrived at Barnard at the age of 17, having never met a female physician nor considered a career in medicine. She said that her Barnard experience prepared her intellectually for a career in the health sciences. “I hadn’t appreciated how much I had been nurtured, cared for, and prepared for next steps until I was invited last year to the annual meeting of the national chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association [LMSA],” said Jacobson. “While there were [distinguished Latino faculty member speakers] who had broken barriers or had been the first Latino at Ivy League universities, sadly there were so many speakers and mentors 20 or even 30 years younger than I am who were told, ‘No, medicine is not for you; think of some other career.’”
Jacobson, a neurologist, said it felt like luck that she landed at Barnard, where Rowland encouraged her to pursue a career in medicine. “Barnard remains a jewel, offering an amazing education and ensuring that others will find their way in the world,” she said. “The LMSA stories of ‘doors closed’ truly made me see my own experience in a brighter light.”
Recent recipients of the scholarship include Isabelle Rocroi ’19 and Isabelle Eshraghi ’22. Rocroi will graduate from the University of Oxford in 2025. “Receiving the Rowland Scholarship was an immense honor because it meant following in the footsteps of the hundreds of Barnard women who followed medical careers under Dean Rowland’s guidance as their preprofessional adviser,” she said. “As a premedical student at Barnard, it was important to acknowledge the women who came before me and, by extension, the work that Dean Rowland put into the preprofessional students she advised.”
While at Barnard, Eshraghi balanced earning her degree in medical anthropology, completing courses in the premed track, and volunteering in the Morningside Heights and Harlem communities. During the height of the pandemic, she worked as a vaccinator.
She plans to apply to medical school and enroll in the Class of 2028, after spending the next two years as the Science Writing Fellow Coordinator at Barnard and working part time as an EMT. “Receiving this scholarship is very meaningful to me as an aspiring physician,” she said. “I am honored to follow in the footsteps of the many female physicians who have been guided by Dean Rowland.”
—MICHELE LYNN ’82