Published November 7, 2022
By Dirk Hoffman
The legacy of the late Jonathan D. Daniels, MD ’98, lives on through the many students he mentored while encouraging them to apply to medical school and those he guided through its rigorous environment once they arrived.
His heartfelt compassion and genuine concern for students’ well-being were evident to anyone who knew him.
Shawn Gibson, a fourth-year medical student from Queens, met Daniels while he was a sophomore in college at a UB-sponsored event called RX for Success.
“He was a speaker and it was really big for me because I was one of the few Black pre-med students at my school at the time,” he says. “His experience as a Black man was very empowering for me. It really gave me a lot of hope and motivated me to stay on this path toward medicine.”
A few years later when Gibson was interviewing for admission to the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Daniels was the first person he saw.
“Just a full circle — years prior he was a mentor and now on one of the most important days of my life he is also there, smiling at me,” he says. “It meant a lot to me.”
Gibson would go on to serve as president of UB’s chapter of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) and interacted frequently with Daniels, the group’s faculty adviser.
“He would give me advice about being a leader and he was always saying “school comes first,’ always remembering the big picture,” he says.
“Dr. Daniels always had this plan to diversify the medical school and make it more inclusive and that aligns perfectly with what I have done and what I want to do as a future doctor,” Gibson says.
Looking back, Gibson says there were a lot of different reasons why he selected UB for medical school, but having a mentor like Daniels “made it an easy choice.”
“He made Buffalo feel like home. It was just not him either, it was Mrs. Daniels as well. Every single time I would see both of them they would just always show me love and respect.”
“They even used to joke ‘we are going to find you a wife to keep you here in Buffalo,’” Gibson says. “It just didn’t always feel like school with them, it felt like family.”
Bryan Velez, a second-year medical student who was born in Colombia but grew up in New York City, also met Daniels as a UB undergraduate.
“He came to an awards banquet and introduced himself to me and some of my classmates,” he says. “He asked us if anyone needed advice or help with getting into medical school.”
Velez told Daniels one thing he was struggling with was finding physicians to shadow.
“He said, ‘no problem,’ and he let me shadow him all summer,” says Velez, vice president of UB’s chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association.
After Velez graduated with a degree in pharmacology and toxicology in 2019, he returned to New York City with the intention of taking a gap year before applying to medical school.
But one year turned into two because Velez started to have doubts about his ability to become a doctor.
“During those gap years, Dr. Daniels would call me to check on me and make sure I was doing well, just in general and offered more help with my application, pointing out my strengths and weaknesses and writing me a recommendation letter,” he says.
“He did a great job encouraging me; he basically believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Velez says. “When I finally got into medical school, so much of it was thanks to him because he just kept pushing me.”
Velez asked Daniels to whitecoat him at the traditional ceremony for incoming medical students.
“That was a great moment because he told me how proud he was of me,” he says. “He was a big factor for me being able to make it onto that stage.”
Velez says Daniels’ legacy will live on because “he gave so much inspiration to me and scores of other medical students.”
“We’re going to take that inspiration and give it to future students like he encouraged us to do.”
Justin Im, a second-year medical student who is president of Polity, the student government for the Jacobs School, says Daniels was a calming influence during the medical school admissions interview process.
“I was nervous because the stakes were so high and I was expecting the normal interview where you walk in and there is a formal set of questions you are asked,” he says.
“But with Dr. Daniels it was very unique because he started off the conversation very casually, asking me about my high school because he had two college roommates who went to the same school,” Im says.
Im says the tone that Daniels set helped to put him at ease as he continued to ask questions about Im’s upbringing and his family.
“They were not the type of questions I was used to during a medical school admissions interview, but I really appreciated that because it was like a casual conversation as if I already knew Dr. Daniels,” he says.
In hindsight, Im says it occurred to him that Daniels was trying to figure out what kind of person he was rather than “just looking to check off boxes.”
“It definitely influenced my decision because I feel like it gave me a window into what the faculty and students are like,” he says. “It was my first impression of the Jacobs School.”
Aswad Lemar Jackson, MD ’22, is a textbook example of how the pipeline programs for minority students are designed to work.
Born and raised in Mississippi, he attended Tougaloo College and gained early acceptance to the Jacobs School through the Early Opportunity Program in Medicine.
Before starting medical school, he and his father attended SNMA’s Second Look Weekend in the spring of 2018 to get acquainted with the school and the city of Buffalo.
Second Look Weekend gives an opportunity for accepted underrepresented students to take a closer look at the school during a weekend of events designed especially for them.
Daniels played a major role in the annual event, ensuring there were sufficient resources behind it and making sure alumni were involved.
“It was my first interaction with Dr. Daniels. Coming from Mississippi to Buffalo was a big transition, so he was very pivotal in helping me,” Jackson says.
Jackson also found another instant connection with Daniels — they were both members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the oldest intercollegiate historically African American fraternity.
Jackson says that in addition to being an invaluable mentor throughout medical school, Daniels also taught him many life lessons.
“I got married in December and he would give me advice about the ‘do’s and don’ts’ in marriage,” he says. “Our relationship was not confined to the Jacobs School. He was just a great person in general — very genuine, encouraging and always smiling.”
Jackson, who currently is in a rural family medicine residency program at Louisiana State University (Bogalusa), says the pipeline approach to attracting underrepresented students to medical school needs to be expanded and supported financially, beginning at the middle school and high school levels.
“It also falls on us as physicians of color. The idea of reach as you climb,” he says. “We cannot become complacent, thinking everything is OK because we have made it. We need to be reaching back and allowing our influence to have an impact.”
Jackson says Black physicians should be going into schools to talk to students.
“We need to open up the idea that you can aspire to be something other than a pro athlete or a rapper to be successful,” he says.
Oftentimes, it’s a case of “if you don’t see it, you can’t be it,” Jackson says.
“Young Blacks often just don’t believe it’s possible,” he adds. “If they don’t see any Black physicians, they think that is the norm. Breaking down those barriers is critical.”