Amber Clark means to be an agent of change. As chief resident in physical medicine and rehabilitation at UAB, she’s not only committed to making a difference in the medical field, but also as an advocate marginalized groups, for those impacted by disabilities, and populations burdened by health disparities.
Clark is the youngest of three girls, raised in Monroe, Louisiana, a town Clark describes as, “Oh! That’s that place I passed on my way to Texas.” Her parents, Kirk and Zelda Clark, were both raised in poverty, and they were determined to make a better life for their children. Zelda became the first African American pharmacist in the city, and her father, an entrepreneur, operates his own janitorial service.
They raised their daughters to be, in Clark’s words, “focused.” Surrounding their children with other families with the same values of hard work and academics, and moving the family to an area with a superior school system, the Clarks raised three successful daughters: Amber’s older sisters are a judge and an internal medicine physician.
Clark herself focused not only on crafting a stellar academic record, but also on her other love, dance. She credits her family’s love, values, and intense commitment to excellence with helping her overcome racial challenges that came early in her childhood. Although she didn’t understand what the “N” word meant when it was first leveled at her on the school bus, Clark could sense the animus behind it.
“But my parents taught us that we are not what people label us,” Clark said. “I am very proud to be an African American, but that is not all that defines me.”
Clark knew she wanted to study medicine as early as elementary school. Her love of dance made her inclined to consider podiatry, but she later broadened her focus. She was fortunate to have a family friend, Dr. Cynthia Brown Manning, who was both a doctor and a woman of color, who served as a role model.
Clark received a full scholarship to attend college at a historically black college, Tougaloo. The small class sizes and the premium placed on student experience meant that Clark thrived, and was ultimately accepted into an early identification program for medical school. She chose Brown.
“I always wanted to go to medical school up north,” she said. “I had been in the South my entire life, and I wanted a change. And not many of us get to have an Ivy League experience, much less and Ivy League medical school experience.”
Medical school at Brown was challenging but fulfilling. Although she was one of only seven racial minorities in the program, she felt tremendously supported by the administration. She had decided on a specialty in orthopedics when she encountered the most significant obstacle in her career trajectory to date: she failed the U.S. Medical School Licensing Examination Step One test by three points.
“Up until that point,” Clark remembered, “I had never failed any standardized test. I was asking myself is I was really supposed to be a doctor.”
Clark took a year off and worked for Lifespan Community Health Services, immersing herself in the community that she hoped to serve. She helped organize and execute health fairs, and spoke to different patient populations, forming relationships she still maintains. She worked with refugees and immigrants and witnessed first hand the difference a single person could make.
Although her Step One failure meant that she would no longer be competitive for orthopedics, Clark decided to try again, this time focusing instead on physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R). She passed on her second try, and hoped to match with a residency program. Still, that initial failure haunted her – until she matched with UAB.
“They saw something in me that was more than just a board score,” Clark said. “They saw all of my experiences, that made me qualified to be here. And now I’m chief resident.”
Clark says that she has loved her UAB experience, citing the exceptional mentors who have shepherded her through her residency. “Also, most of us in PM&R are just happy people,” she said. “I love the patient population that we get to work with, and the focus on the restoration of function and improving independence and quality of life.”
In addition to her position as chief resident, Clark served on the Diversity and Inclusion subcommittee for Graduate Medical Education, and is involved with Ambassadors of Change, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to empowering young women to be agents of change in their communities.
“My purpose is to be a physician,” Clark said, “But it’s also to affect change. My heart’s desire is to be a thought leader in health policy. A lot of people haven’t set foot in a hospital, and haven’t taken care of patients, so they don’t see the effects of decisions that are made higher up. I feel that I could help bring understanding and compassion to that process. I will be a person of positive influence.”