Doctor seeks social cures as a state delegate
Balancing two professions with one thing in common: a passion to serve
In the Maryland Legislature, there are 188 senators and delegates. But only four of them are doctors. Clarence Lam is one of the four. Lam is a board-certified physician in preventive medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, the same university medical system where another doctor-turned-politician — Ben Carson — once ran the pediatric neurosurgery unit and is now a Republican candidate for president. Lam is the program director of the preventive medicine residency program.
In November 2014, he was elected a state delegate to represent District 12, which includes Howard and Baltimore counties.
Running for public office was not something that came naturally to Lam, who is 34.
“I think that’s maybe the upbringing in our culture,” he said. “As Chinese Americans, we are usually pretty humble; we don’t want always speak up or draw attention to ourselves, or we feel like it’s not necessary to always take credit, we are part of a larger community,” Lam said.
“When you run for office, you have to do the opposite of that, it’s all about getting your name out there, trying to do things that will generate attention so that people will vote for you,” he said. “That’s not something culturally that you usually do,” Lam said.
Lam said he “knocked on 20,000 doors” in the district to talk to people.
“You have to understand the substance of what you have been doing, but you also have to understand the politics, which is completely a different animal. People have different personalities; to know who are your allies, know folks who might not be friendly to you,” Lam said.
“I’m still learning. Fortunately, I’ve got a lot of good mentors, and overcame some of the challenges and barriers,” he said.
In his mission statement on his website, Lam says: “As a physician, I recognize the importance of being a good listener.”
He said that although it is challenging to balance two important positions, having a full-time profession “keeps you grounded. You understand the struggles that regular people go through.”
“The benefit of having people with diverse backgrounds (in the legislative body) is that everyone can bring something to the table,” Lam said.
“There are very few Asian Americans in the Legislature, so that’s a challenge for us to try to explain to folks culturally why our community values education or why our community prioritizes this or that,” he said.
Lam said that everyone has been brought up differently, and people don’t necessarily share similar experiences. So sometimes it’s hard for them to understand Asians’ philosophy.
“We are there to share our experiences with our colleagues there,” Lam said. “Sometimes when people come up to us for bills, or need ideas or they need help with something, it is also helpful to have a familiar face.”
Even for people who are not from his district, they often seek out Lam.
“Because they feel more comfortable than someone else,” Lam said.
Lam, who grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, said that as a boy, he always wanted to fit in with the broader community but felt like he never did.
“You look at the things from different lenses; you realize your parents were struggling to make sure that you have good education,” he said.
Lam recalled instances when people treated his parents differently because they looked or talked differently.
“But on the other hand, you also realized that there are many more opportunities here in the US than many folks around the world (have),” he said. “So you really do develop a sense of pride.”
“It was kind of from that sense that I wanted to give back to the community. From the personal perspective, it’s that your parents had all these chances and opportunities to really succeed, accomplish a lot of different things and raise a family well,” Lam said.
“It comes from being here in this country and wanting to give back to the next generation, for new immigrants to come here, and also to help people here in the community, because I felt so much has been given to my family, too,” Lam said.
One issue that Lam is working on is improving health services for the Asian- American community.
Lam said that when
the Department of Health collects data on rates of hepatitis, an illness common in the Asian-American community, it often includes the categories of Caucasian, African American and Hispanic but sometimes Asian Americans are in the “other” category.
“It is very hard for us to figure out how to address the problems, if we have high rates of hepatitis, you might not be able to see that because we are buried within the ‘other’ category,” Lam said.
As a first step, Lam said the surveys should be accessible separately.
Lam is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science and biology.
“When I went to college, I tried to keep a bigger perspective on things, so I double majored in political science and biology, two very different areas,” Lam said.
He chose biology because it was closely aligned with his previous training, while political science is more of a personal interest.
Lam earned his medical degree from the University of Maryland and his master’s of public health from Johns Hopkins University, where he also completed his residency training and served as chief resident. Lam is also board-certified in preventive medicine.
“I came here because I knew a lot of health-policy work was done around the DC area. Because of the federal government, a lot of the public health has been done around here, so it’s good place to come for training,” he said.
While in medical school, Lam was elected the student body president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and he interned on the health affairs staff of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the US House of Representatives. While there, he assisted oversight investigations on drug-safety policy.
Lam also served as a biodefense analyst at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and wrote reports on public health preparedness.
“I just happen to have a lot of experience … that kind of guides me towards health policy and public health, which is kind of the blending of political science and the biology and the medicine together,” Lam said.
Dr Clarence Lam, a Maryland state delegate representing District 12, sits in his office at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. Lam serves on the faculty and as the program director of the preventive medicine residency program at the School of Public Health.
Dr Clarence Lam