Dr. Laura Svetkey: Championing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

In academia, pursuing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has evolved from an admirable ideal to an essential component of institutional excellence. Laura Svetkey, MD, Vice Chair for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Duke Department of Medicine (DOM), is a guiding light of leadership in this domain. As part of DOM’s Women's History Month series spotlighting women who advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion, we delve into Dr. Svetkey's remarkable journey and her pivotal role in shaping the department's DEI initiatives.

Dr. Svetkey's journey into DEI advocacy dates back over three decades when she joined the Minority Recruitment Committee (MRC), now the Minority Recruitment and Retainment Committee (MRRC), and the Department’s “women’s committee", now the Program for Women in Internal Medicine (PWIM). Despite lacking official endorsement or resources, these grassroots efforts laid the groundwork for fostering a more inclusive environment at Duke. Dr. Svetkey's early involvement in MRCC and PWIM underscored her commitment to promoting diversity and equity within the department.

"The history of diversity, equity, and inclusion focus in the Department of Medicine goes back at least to the mid-1980s when George Phillips started the Minority Recruitment Committee. George was a young member of the hematology division, one of the architects and leaders of the Duke-UNC sickle cell center. The MRC was unsanctioned by any department leaders; George just did it," Dr. Svetkey reflects. “He was a role model for me.”

Her DEI efforts within the department jumped up a notch with her appointment in 2007 as Vice Chair for Faculty Development and Diversity, a position that afforded DEI initiatives both resources and a seat at the DoM leadership table. The Office of Faculty Development and Diversity is currently the Office of DEI, with the creation of a separate Office of Faculty Development led by Dr. Carla Brady.

As Vice Chair, Svetkey expanded the roles of MRRC and PWIM, added Civility Champions and Stepping in 4 Respect, and the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-racism (DEIAR) Committee, and provided mentorship, sponsorship, educational and networking opportunities.

Dr Svetkey’s career has had a parallel track: she has had a 30+-year NIH-sponsored research career dedicated to addressing hypertension, obesity, and kidney disease in the disproportionately-affected Black community, most recently within the NIMHD-sponsored REACH Equity disparities research center. With a diverse “community advisory board” in the 1990’s, she practiced community-engaged research before it had a name. Over the years, she has also co-led two career development award programs, CTSA-sponsored KL2 and REACH Equity-sponsored Individual Development Core, with intentional strategies for increasing diversity in the research workforce.

Dr. Svetkey summed up her career so far: “My DEI leadership, disparities research, and leadership of career development programs, along with mentoring faculty and trainees predominantly from underrepresented groups has all been for the same purpose: to do my part to foster equity in career opportunity and equity in the opportunity for good health; to embed a ‘DEI lens’ in everything we do; and to reflect a fundamental understanding of the symbiotic relationship between diversity, equity, and excellence.”

However, Dr. Svetkey's journey is not just about individual achievements; it's about cultivating a culture of collective responsibility towards DEI. She has ensured continuity and sustainability in advancing these critical initiatives by fostering a diverse cadre of DEI leaders within the department. Dr. Svetkey's decision to step down from her role as Vice Chair for DEI reflects her belief in the depth of talent and commitment within the department to carry forward the mantle of DEI advocacy.

"I have loved this Vice-Chair job and am deeply grateful for the opportunities it afforded me. I have relished the challenges, grown and benefitted so much from the people I got to work with, learned so much, and felt respected and heard in these endeavors,” said Dr. Svetkey. “Recognizing that embracing change, like fostering diversity, can invigorate energy, spark innovation, and foster creativity, I’ve asked Dr. Cooney to replace me. Soon she will launch a search for the new Vice Chair for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. While I’ll be sad to leave the role, I know there is a very deep bench of potential successors, and I look forward to seeing where new DEI leadership takes us. I plan to remain an ally," Dr. Svetkey concludes.

As we commemorate Women's History Month, Dr. Laura Svetkey's contributions to the Duke Department of Medicine stand as a testament to the resilience and leadership of women in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Her legacy serves as an inspiration and a reminder of the transformative power of collective action in shaping a more just and equitable academic community. As the department commemorates the achievements of women like Dr. Svetkey, it underscores its ongoing commitment to equity and inclusion.