Future Physicians, Researchers Spend Transformative Summer on the U.S.-Mexico Border

FRONTERA summer program pairs University of Arizona students with mentors, giving them hands-on border-health research experience while building stronger applicants to medical school and graduate health sciences programs.

Eleven University of Arizona students aspiring to careers in health care and medical research received hands-on experience addressing health disparities in the U.S.-Mexico border region during an intensive 10-week paid internship. They will present their work on Aug. 5.

FRONTERA, or Focusing Research on the Border Area, prepares Arizona’s future health-care professionals and researchers to tackle the health challenges unique to the U.S.-Mexico border area, a mostly rural, bicultural region with interconnected communities on both sides of the border. Through service learning and research projects, they come face to face with the health disparities that affect the region.

According to U.S. Census data, nearly half of people residing in the four Arizona counties bordering Mexico are Native American or Latino, calling for a larger and more diverse health-care workforce. In response, the UA Health Sciences’ Office of Diversity and Inclusion has been managing FRONTERA since 2007, with the goal to increase — and diversify — the pipeline of future health-care providers and researchers.

Students are matched to mentors according to their area of interest, working with faculty members engaged in biomedical and public health research.

“Our students are economically disadvantaged and first-generation college students,” said Lydia Kennedy, MEd, director of the UAHS Office of Diversity and Inclusion. “Many underrepresented students do not have mentors. This program creates effective mentoring relationships that help our students successfully navigate their health professions education and careers.”

“As a first-generation college student, the program connected me with somebody who was interested in mentoring me,” said Ray Larez, MPH, a second-year medical student at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson and a FRONTERA alumnus. “I’ll always remember that mentorship and feeling reassured, that this is what I want to do and I’m in the right place.”

Ycied Talavera, a UA microbiology major and FRONTERA intern, said her mentor, Jessica Moreno, MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, has been instrumental in her academic development. “She’s Latina, like myself,” Talavera said. “Her advice on being a Latina in the medical field and growing into the position she has now has definitely helped me know it’s possible for someone like me to do what she does.”

FRONTERA also gives students many opportunities to learn through service learning, bringing textbooks to life as they gain firsthand experience in border communities.

“I really enjoyed the Nogales trip,” said Gissel Heraldez, a UA physiology major and FRONTERA intern. “We helped them keep their patios clean, to reduce the risk of mosquitoes and dengue, Zika and Chikungunya. It was amazing because it’s not something people think is a big deal, but it can really make a difference in their health.”

“I saw how both sides of Nogales work together for a common goal, even though they’re in different countries, with a whole wall in the middle,” recalled Karen Ibarra, a third-year medical student at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson and FRONTERA alumna. “It was something that I took to heart, extending my passion for rural medicine in general.”

Students also take strides toward their future careers, and by the end are well-prepared to stand out when they apply to medical school and other graduate programs.

“We were able to take a free MCAT, which gave us a look into what taking the full-length MCAT would be like,” said Anna Maria Driesen, a UA physiology major and FRONTERA intern. “We’ve gotten advice on strategizing during the MCAT, and are shown how to write personal statements and act during medical school interviews. They’re preparing us really well for that process.”

The opportunity to shadow physicians also helped students know what to expect from their careers. “I was able to see a C-section. That gave me a clear view of what to expect if I decide to pursue OB/GYN,” said Talavera. “That experience made me more passionate and more excited.”

“They’re a different person after the program,” said Alejandra Zapien Hidalgo, MD, MPH, FRONTERA’s program coordinator. “It’s the culmination of all the things they learned throughout the program. You see them more secure, more self-confident.”

“It’s elevated them to a different level,” Kennedy added. “It’s amazing how polished and better prepared they are.”

FRONTERA is open to UA undergraduates with junior or senior standing, as well as to graduate students and recent UA graduates, who are interested in exploring medicine, nursing, public health or pharmacy.

“Apply — you’ll learn more than you thought you would,” said Karen Beltran, a third-year medical student at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson and FRONTERA alumna. “If you’re interested in medicine, this is a great opportunity to get exposure to rural health research and get a sense of the medical field.”

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences

The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. The UA Health Sciences includes the UA Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the growing Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, the UA Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona and the greater Southwest to provide cutting-edge health education, research, patient care and community outreach services. A major economic engine, the UA Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 900 faculty members and garners $173.5 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram