A fourth-year UC Davis medical student has been awarded a scholarship from National Medical Fellowships to conduct research on community mental health in the Central Valley.

Jacqueline León, who dreams of becoming a psychiatrist, will use the grant on a research project studying the mental health needs of Mexican-American families, especially immigrant parents whose children are raised in the U.S.

“This project will look at how this culture mitigates adverse mental health outcomes, or positive mental health outcomes, in Latinx, rural communities,” she said.

National Medical Fellowships is a nonprofit committed to “disrupting racisms in medicine,” in part by offering millions in scholarships to students underrepresented in medicine and boosting diversity in clinical research.

León is part of the inaugural group of scholars from across the U.S. to receive funding from the organization’s Health Equity Leaders Program for exploring health equity service, scholarship, leadership and advocacy.

Relating to immigrant families like her own

The project is a perfect match for León. The Fresno native wants to establish her career in the Central Valley and is part of the school’s SJV-PRIME pathway (which has transitioned into a similar program called REACH), which provides students with extensive clinical experience in the San Joaquin Valley.

She will conduct research to tackle health disparities in the Central Valley under principal investigator Rosa Manzo of UC Merced, a scientist with expertise in community engagement.

“I can relate to the experience of so many immigrant families, like mine, who are unable to access preventive medical care,” León said, “either because they can’t afford it, or due to their immigration status, or because they’re working so hard that it doesn’t cross their mind.”

Much of the research will be done through a federally qualified health center in Madera County, Camarena Health. León will help organize focus groups to interview community health workers known as promotoras, who will tell her about specific community mental health needs.

León said the project speaks to the “why” she wants to be a physician. And it has a lot to do with her upbringing: She can relate to the experience of so many agricultural worker families, like hers, who face barriers to care.

“We didn’t go to pediatric well-child visits,” León said. “We came from a family that only went to the doctor when you’re losing a limb, or you can’t breathe — high acuity emergency situations.”

Successful journey to medical school

León studied public health at UC Berkeley and enrolled in the UC Davis School of Medicine Postbaccalaureate Program, which prepares recent grads to apply for medical school. But instead of setting her immediate sights on medical school, León chose to attend UCLA for a master’s degree in public health, which bolstered a health education career she started years earlier.

“This award is an accumulation of everything I’ve done, which has been centered around community and social justice,” León said. “This is pretty much the start of becoming a community psychiatrist.”