Medical student to study mental health needs of Mexican-American parents

Fresno native returns to Central Valley roots to conduct research, thanks to scholarship


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
Jacqueline León will conduct research in the Central Valley

Jacqueline León, who dreams of becoming a psychiatrist, will use the grant on a research project. She’ll study the mental health needs of Mexican-American families, especially immigrant parents whose children are raised in the United States.

“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 organization committed to “disrupting racisms in medicine,” in part by offering millions of dollars 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 United States to receive funding from the organization’s Health Equity Leaders Program. The program seeks to provide meaningful opportunities for students to explore health equity service, scholarship, leadership and advocacy.

A close connection to Central Valley communities

The research project is a perfect match for León.

The Fresno native wants to establish her career in the Central Valley, and her medical education has prepared her well. She is part of the school’s SJV-PRIME pathway (which has now transitioned into a similar program called REACH), which provides students with extensive clinical experience in the San Joaquin Valley. After she graduates in May, León is hoping to enter a psychiatry residency program.

Before starting her fourth year in medical school, León was actively considering doing research in the Central Valley. Three  faculty mentors encouraged her to seek opportunities and  helped her focus on specific goals: Ruth Shim, who is associate dean of Diverse and Inclusive Education; Jorge Garcia, who is associate dean for Diverse and Inclusive Learning Communities; and Andres Sciolla, a professor in the department of Clinical Psychiatry.

But León had no idea how she would afford the endeavor – until she learned of the Health Equity Leaders Program and applied for the grant, which offers $12,250.

“So many stars have aligned for me in this project and what I hope my career will become,” León said. 

Relating to immigrant families like her own

Jacqueline León, in black graduation cap and gown, stands with her mother in front of brick building at UCLA
Jacqueline León, shown with her mother, at her UCLA master’s degree in public health graduation in 2016

She will conduct research to tackle health disparities in the Central Valley under Principal Investigator Rosa Manzo of UC Merced, a project 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 mental health needs regarding the population they work with.

León said the research project speaks to the “why” she wants to be a physician. And it has a lot to do with her upbringing in Fresno and Tulare counties: 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

She graduated from Bullard High School in Fresno, studied public health at UC Berkeley and enrolled in the UC Davis School of Medicine Postbaccalaureate Program, which prepares recent college graduates 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 had started years earlier in teaching the community about critical topics – such as hypertension and diabetes – in the Bay Area and Tulare County.

“I was raised in underresourced communities, so I’m well aware of various health inequities and disparities,” León said. “That’s what motivated me to pursue a career in public health.”

UC Davis was her top choice for medical school, in part because of the faculty’s deep concern over training more students to become doctors in the Central Valley, which faces a severe shortage of providers compared to more urban areas.

León has begun initial work on the Health Equity Leaders research project.  She expects the research to teach her more about mental health needs so she can help shape services and policies to benefit the community when she’s a psychiatrist.

“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.”