NEWS | November 16, 2020

Medical student focused on global health receives new, national scholarship

Zena Simmons honored for academic excellence, leadership and commitment to community service


Zena Simmons, a second-year medical student, has made global health a cornerstone of her education.

 Zena Simmons has received the Dr. Prentiss Taylor Scholarship from National Medical Fellowships Zena Simmons has received the Dr. Prentiss Taylor Scholarship from National Medical Fellowships

As an undergraduate student at Pepperdine University, she led mission trips to bring health care to the medically underserved in Latin America and other regions. She earned two master’s degrees – in biomedical sciences and in public health – from Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, where she focused on health disparities and research.

At the UC Davis School of Medicine, she is a Vice Chancellor’s Mission-based Advocacy Regional Community Health Scholar, a prestigious award for students who promote the UC Davis Health mission of improving lives and transforming health care.

Simmons’ passion for community health has caught the attention of National Medical Fellowships, which last month awarded her the 2020 Dr. Prentiss Taylor Scholarship.

The highly competitive scholarship is new this year. Simmons was the only student in the country to receive it – which shocked her.

“I was completely blown away,” Simmons said. “I called my mom and she was all, ‘I knew you would get it!’”

The $5,000 award is given to an underrepresented minority medical student who has demonstrated academic excellence, leadership and commitment to community service.

Zena Simmons hugs a girl in La Romana, Dominican Republic, on a medical mission trip she organized as interim director of student affairs for the Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing.

As a child growing up in New Jersey, Simmons looked forward to visiting the hospital where her mom worked as a cardiac technician, especially on the annual Take Your Child to Work Day.

“I always knew I could see myself helping people through health care and healing,” she said.

She also envisioned herself living in California. She majored in sports medicine at Pepperdine while also taking a special interest in foreign languages (she’s fluent in French and Spanish), global health and international studies. During her undergraduate years she traveled extensively for study abroad programs through Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America.

By incorporating mission trips within school curriculum, she initiated and led groups of fellow students to Fiji, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

After completing both master’s degree programs at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Simmons was hired as interim director of Student Affairs at the institution’s Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing. There, she expanded educational opportunities for students and created medical mission work for students to gain clinical hours abroad while helping some of the most impoverished communities in the world.

She also thrived in research, publishing studies on the effects of vitamin D on muscle growth and the cardiovascular effects of e-cigarettes.

Simmons chose to apply to UC Davis School of Medicine because it was a “perfect match” for her values, which include a desire to “address conditions that disproportionally affect under-resourced populations.”

She’s been active outside the lecture halls, as chair-elect of the California Medical Association-Medical Student Section and co-president of Organized Medicine, a UC Davis student interest group.

She’s interested in becoming an obstetrician-gynecologist.

Despite having visited more than 25 countries for mission work and international studies, Simmons pictures herself as a “stationary physician” where she can deliver health care to the medically underserved. She’s also drawn to health care policy and research.

But when she takes vacation time during her career, Simmons said, she’ll likely use it to perform mission work.