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Cristina Toledo-Cornell
Weill Cornell Medical College

MD Class of 2013

Cristina Toledo-Cornell’s name prompts some confused reactions at Weill Cornell Medical College.

“I applied to Weill Cornell for two reasons. One, my husband’s grandmother’s great uncle was Ezra Cornell. I thought it would be very interesting to go to school there because of the family history attached to it, and because it’s located in New York City,” Toledo-Cornell, MD Class of 2013, says.

But the university really interested her because it gave her the opportunity to research in her native country, Brazil, where members of the Weill Cornell medical faculty have a 20-year-long research collaboration history with the Federal University of Bahia in the city of Salvador.

Journey to medicine

The seventh of nine children, Toledo-Cornell spent her childhood in a small village near the Amazon rainforest, but she was not interested in medicine until a sibling died from snakebite. When she was 14, construction of a hydroelectric dam forced her family to move from their farm to the city of Goiânia.

City living was expensive. To help her family make ends meet, Toledo-Cornell worked for a local doctor, Daniel Palmieri Costa, while attending night school. She credits Costa for inspiring her to pursue her dream of attending medical school.

At age 19 another important person entered her life. She met Housein Cornell on a public bus in Goiânia. They married and moved to Dearborn, Michigan, in 2002.

“I moved to the United States to go to college as it was very difficult for me to go to school in Brazil because my family could not support me financially,” Toledo-Cornell says.

She enrolled at Henry Ford Community College, learned English, and won a scholarship that allowed her to attend Wayne State University. She graduated summa cum laude in December 2007 and enrolled at Weill Cornell Medical College in 2008.

“I think the best part of my medical school experience has been my clinical year, my third year,” Toledo-Cornell says. “It was rewarding being part of the hospital, in a very supportive environment, with great, great doctors doing . . . amazing medicine with so many different patients from all over the world.”

“Going through the rigorous first two years of basic science and academic medicine, and then being able to be in a hospital, was actually a very great experience,” she adds.

After her third year at the medical college, Toledo-Cornell spent a year in Bahia researching neurologic disease progression in patients infected by the HTLV-1 virus, thanks to a Fogarty International Clinical Research Scholarship. She is grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Warren Johnson, the B.H. Kean Professor of Tropical Medicine, and Marshall Glesby, associate chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Cornell HIV Clinical Trials Unit, and adjunct professor of medicine, Edgar Carvalho.

Glesby, she says, has helped and influenced her more than anyone at Weill Cornell Medical College.

“He has been there for everything I need . . . guiding me with my decisions, helping me with things that are difficult for students sometimes,” she says. “He helped me with my research, helped me with choosing the best place for the kind of career I want to follow. He has been a mentor in every aspect of my career as a medical student, since I started working with him near the end of my second year.”

Balancing act

Adding to her busy medical school and research schedule, Toledo-Cornell and her husband started a family after she returned from Bahia. Their son, Cameron, was born in 2012.

The key to succeeding in medical school after having a child is “having a supportive husband,” she says. “Obviously, you have to be a little more creative with your time, especially when it comes to studying. Luckily, I did this in my fourth year when your responsibilities in medical school are not as much as the first three years, so it wasn’t as hard.”

Because she started college at age 22, Toledo-Cornell was several years older than most of her classmates in college and medical school. However, she believes the age difference was an advantage.

“In particular, in a field like medicine, where a great deal of what you do is work with other people, it’s very helpful to have maturity to work in places that depend on teamwork, that depend on you to do certain things and understand how the dynamics of a place works,” she says.

Residency and beyond

After graduation, Toledo-Cornell will start her residency in internal medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. She plans to focus on global health issues.

“Getting accepted into residency at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital is the realization of a dream that started when I was a child, when I attended class in a one-room school,” Toledo-Cornell says. “When I opened my acceptance envelope, I felt very happy and grateful and, most of all, hopeful that I will have a career dedicated to help others feel better and to improve their lives.”

She also feels her success validates her sacrifices and those of everyone who has supported her.

“Getting the residency felt like a gift I received for my hard work,” she says. “It was also a gift for all the people that helped me along the way: my first boss, Dr. Daniel Palmieri [Costa], who really taught me to be the way I am; my parents, who had to sacrifice so much for my education and upbringing; my husband and his parents for their support; and my teachers and mentors who believed that I could accomplish the tasks I set out to do.”

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