Challenge accepted: Graduate students answer the call to help boost health equity

Finalists in the UCLA Health Equity Challenge proposed innovative measures to help those often underserved

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Mike Fricano

Empowering people living in Watts to become their own environmental justice advocates by training them as citizen scientists who can gather data and map hazards and assets.

Making sure that Black expectant parents know their rights when it comes to obtaining adequate medical care and resources, and they are treated with integrity and listened to without judgment.

Offering culturally sensitive mental health and well-being lessons for Asian youth in the San Gabriel Valley that combine teachings about nutrition, sleep and regular physical activity with traditional Chinese medicine practices.

These ambitious and practical ideas to narrow or eliminate longstanding disparities in health care are among those proposed by the 15 finalists in the third annual Health Equity Challenge. Launched in 2022, the challenge invites graduate students from any UCLA department or school to propose a project that would help address a health disparity in Los Angeles, San Bernardino or Riverside counties. The Health Equity Challenge is sponsored by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research (CHPR), The MolinaCares Accord and the California Health Care Foundation.

“Since we started this in 2022, we’ve seen a wide array of innovative ideas — from direct interventions, to developing new programs, to advocating for policy changes,” said Kathryn Kietzman, PhD, director of UCLA CHPR’s Health Equity Program. “The students who enter inspire us every year with their intelligence and passion.” 

Each of the selected students will receive a $2,500 stipend and 15 weeks of mentorship with a UCLA faculty member or community leader who can help them further develop and refine their proposals into projects that a community organization could implement. 

An independent review committee will review their final proposals and up to four students will be awarded an additional $2,500 stipend and the community organization will receive up to $50,000 to implement the project.

“By partnering with community organizations, we help ensure that the challenge’s benefits extend beyond campus to where the needs are most acute,” Kietzman said.

Monika Shankar, a PhD student in environmental health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said she was thrilled to be named a finalist in the Health Equity Challenge.

“It gives me the opportunity to innovatively apply my research in collaboration with expert community organizers and skilled residents,” said Shankar, who proposed the citizen scientists training program in Watts. “I hope to build the capacity of Watts residents to identify and address stationary sources of pollutants in their community, with the long-term goal of moving the needle on health inequities.”

Samantha Garcia’s project would help pregnant women by creating a virtual prenatal care program in partnership with UCLA resident physician Dr. Maria Paula Arias. Garcia, who is studying at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the UCLA Anderson School of Management, is the daughter of an immigrant mother from Mexico and father from Puerto Rico. As a premedical student interning and then working at St. John’s Community Health, or SJCH, in South L.A. she found herself identifying with the Latinx patients.

“I quickly learned that there is power in my ability to understand cultural nuances and communicate effectively in Spanish with monolingual Spanish-speaking patients, especially in communities like Los Angeles where many of the individuals impacted by health inequities are Latinx,” she said. “I am confident that my experiences at SJCH along with my current business and medical education at UCLA are allowing me to develop the tools to address health disparities through innovative solutions as a future Latina OBGYN physician.”

Finalist Angela Rose David is a first-generation Filipino American, born and raised in Los Angeles. David is working toward her master’s in public health in the Fielding School’s program for health professionals, while working full time as the project manager for a lab that explores health disparities affecting the Filipino immigrant population. 

“Through the Health Equity Challenge, I hope to develop a culturally tailored bereavement curriculum emphasizing mental health care and advanced care planning, thereby equipping the Filipino/Filipino American community with the social support and knowledge needed to protect and support themselves and each other in the face of future traumas,” said David, who graduated from UCLA in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a double minor in Spanish and public health.

Several of the projects include creating shareable resources like curricula and toolkits that can be used by others.

“MolinaCares is dedicated to promoting health equity for all individuals, regardless of their circumstances in life,” said Abbie Totten, plan president of Molina Healthcare of California. “That’s why we’re proud to continue supporting this important work at a world-class university like UCLA.”

Added Kara Carter, senior vice president of strategy and programs for the California Health Care Foundation: “I continue to be inspired and impressed by the innovators and solutions coming out of the Health Equity Challenge. I can’t wait to see what the latest group of finalists accomplish with their current proposals and in the years to come.” 

The 15 finalists:

Angela Rose David will work on developing a culturally tailored bereavement curriculum emphasizing mental health care and advanced care planning for the Filipino American community.

Samantha Deveaux plans to create and implement a training program for health care providers and community health workers working with unhoused pregnant women.

Emily Dickey will develop and implement a pilot to incorporate point-of-care ultrasound into street-side services for people experiencing homelessness.

Katie Fruin proposes to develop a nutrition and culinary education training program for formerly incarcerated and/or gang-involved youth, ages 16–24.

Samantha Garcia plans to address health disparities for pregnant women by creating a virtual prenatal care program that’s offered in English and Spanish.

Zurisadai Inzunza will work to increase LGBTQIA+ youth and adults’ access to sexual and mental health services and gender-affirming care by creating a toolkit meant to be used in medical education settings.

Salmaan Kamal plans to improve care for people experiencing homelessness and criminal justice system involvement by creating a peer specialist program that would complement existing jail diversion programs.

Mohammad Khorgamphar will develop an educational resource for Black and African American parents called the “Birthing Medical Rights Booklet,” so that Black expectant parents would have the knowledge to access adequate care and resources.

Michelle Ko will create, implement and evaluate a culturally relevant mental health education curriculum that combines a focus on nutrition, sleep and regular physical activity with traditional Chinese medicine for youth in the San Gabriel Valley.

Monica Le proposes to create a program that addresses CPR disparities by providing access to resources and training for people who live in public housing. Le’s program would encompass educational outreach, community engagement and increased access to automated external defibrillators.

Bethlehem Michael will design a nutrition and food gardening curriculum for low-income older adults in the South Los Angeles area.

Supraja Saravanakumar plans to work on dismantling the intergenerational stigma surrounding mental health within South Asian communities by creating “Spill the Chai Ma,” a program for pregnant women and new South Asian mothers (six months postpartum).

Jose Segura-Bermudez will develop an STD self-testing kit tailored to the Latinx and Hispanic community that includes educational and follow-up information in Spanish/Portuguese and connects positive-testing individuals with HIV care. 

Monika Shankar will develop a citizen scientist training program in Watts to transform members of the community into “environmental agents of change.” 

Apurv Sibal will implement a multi-tiered Braille system for vision care education for aging immigrants in multiple languages and tailored to different levels of vision impairment.

Read more about each of the projects on the Health Equity Challenge website.



About the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research
The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research (CHPR) is one of the nation’s leading health policy research centers and the premier source of health policy information for California. UCLA CHPR improves the public’s health through high quality, objective, and evidence-based research and data that informs effective policymaking. UCLA CHPR is the home of the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) and is part of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health​.