Angelica Johnsen and Alma Lopez were selected as the grand prize winners of the inaugural UCLA Health Equity Challenge, and their community partners, the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science and SHIELDS for Families, will receive $50,000 each to fund and implement their proposals, which both tackle critical mental health inequities. Read the press release.

Meet all 10 finalists and learn more about their projects.

Sonya Brooks

Project: Create convivial spaces for Black girls and their mothers/caregivers in the form of virtual dinners used to cook and share intergenerational narratives, navigating through spaces of healing, health, and advocating for their unmet needs. The dinners will provide a deeper understanding of the intersectionalities of the lives of Black women while passing down vital messages necessary for survival in society.

Sonya Brooks headshot

Sonya Brooks is a PhD student in the Urban Schooling division at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Her research interests lie at the intersections of education policy, law, and urban schools in an effort to design frameworks to build better educational trajectories for students, specifically Black girls.

Brooks is a passionate advocate for the health and well-being of girls in PK–12, the advisor for Beautiful Brown Girls — a community-based program in the Bay Area — and is the recipient for the 2021 Center for the Study of Women Black Feminism Initiative Award for her research on Black women and empowerment. After graduating from UCLA in 2019 with a bachelor’s in History and Brown University in 2021 with a master’s in Urban Education Policy, Brooks has been invited to speak about her work with Black girls and ways of dismantling the challenges they experience in academic and health care spaces. Currently, her areas of research include the historical importance of intergenerational narratives and storytelling and its impact on the health and well-being and educational opportunities for girls.

In her spare time, Brooks loves roller skating, reading, writing, and spending time with her children doing everything or nothing at all.

“As a mother of color, being able to share oral histories centering on foods and their historical importance with young girls and their families is invigorating as it allows for a deeper understanding of the intersectionalities of the lives of marginalized women while passing down vital messages necessary for survival in society. The narratives shared assist girls with navigating through spaces of healing, health, and advocating for their unmet needs while creating a space that allows for the learning of how to plant, cook, and create their own agency, allowing them to be able to continue this trajectory for lifetimes to come.” —Sonya Brooks

Lei Chen

Project: Develop a “Research-Practice Consensus” program to connect researchers and community organizations working with older immigrant adults to bridge the gap in health care and social services and build trust and solidarity with each other.

Lei Chen headshot

Lei Chen, MS, MSP, is a doctoral candidate at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs in the Social Welfare Department and a graduate student researcher at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research (CHPR). As a trans-disciplinary and cross-cultural researcher, Chen’s research interest focuses on health and aging policy, long-term services and supports, immigrants’ access to health care, older adults’ psychological well-being, and cross-cultural studies. She has worked on grant-funded research projects, published articles in peer-reviewed journals, and presented research at national conferences related to older adults’ social support and psychological well=being, immigrants’ law enforcement experiences and access to health care, cross-cultural researchers’ positionality in conducting research with immigrants, etc.

Apart from being an academic, Chen actively engages in policy-related work at state and national levels. As a researcher, she always thinks about bridging the gap between health-related research and policy/practice for marginalized older adults. Her high-level aspiration for reducing health care disparities is to connect and build the partnership between researchers and community organizations by 1) translating research findings and using data to serve local communities and 2) identifying difficulties that marginalized older adults face based on community organizations’ day-to-day field experiences, which will inform further research.

“I always think about bridging the gap between health-related research and policy/practice for marginalized older adults. My high-level aspiration for reducing health care disparities with this project is to connect and build the partnership between researchers and community organizations by 1) translating research findings and using data to serve local communities and 2) identifying difficulties that marginalized older adults face based on community organizations’ day-to-day field experiences, which will inform further research.” —Lei Chen

Annalea Forrest

Project: Build an integrative health platform that aims to decrease health inequities and increase the accessibility, availability, and affordability of psychotherapeutic services, trauma informed exercise, and nutritional counseling in Los Angeles. The platform will employ a coordinated care model that connects BIPOC and low-income community members to preventive and integrative care via telehealth, at-home services, or on-site with community partners.

Annalea Forrest headshot

Annalea Forrest is an indigenous, dual Master of Social Welfare and Master of Public Health student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, whose work on health inequity has supported violence survivors, families in poverty, and marginalized communities. As a foster-care graduate and first-generation student in her freshman year at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Forrest founded REACH, (Rural Education Access for Community Health), an NGO that supplemented the shortage of mental healthcare providers in rural areas.

At UCLA, Forrest’s work is centered on creating access to comprehensive preventative, mental and physical health services for low-income, BIPOC, health-service providers, K–12 teachers, and artists. Forrest is a 2020 recipient of the Public Health Advocacy Fellowship from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and 2020 recipient of the Child and Family Health Fellowship from the UCLA Center of Excellence in Maternal & Child Health.

Originally from the Midwest, Forrest continues to grow her love for art, creating music, and new culinary experiences thanks to her roots in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan and the rural farming communities of central Illinois. In Los Angeles, she spends her time rock climbing, adventuring on camping road trips, and connecting to beauty through the eyes of her friends and neighbors living in Skid Row.

“My participation in the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research’s Health Equity Challenge supports my goal of lowering rates of chronic disease, chronic pain, and trauma for low-income and BIPOC communities through creating a integrated health platform that increases access to the combination of mental health services, trauma informed exercise and movement, and nutritional education and counseling in health professional shortage areas (HPSAs), such as rural and inner city locations. Connecting our low-income, BIPOC communities, as well as our health professionals, K-12 educators, and artists directly to anti-racist, trauma-informed, preventive and integrative care stands to mitigate the following: chronic pain, trauma-related disabilities, houselessness, addiction, poverty, as well as systemic, racially-prejudiced medical abuse and neglect, health provider and K-12 educator burnout and traumatization, community and interpersonal violence, and inequities in accessing nutrition, exercise, and culturally expansive psychotherapy.” —Annalea Forrest

James Huỳnh

Project: Develop an Intergenerational LGBTQ+ Community Space to bridge the social gap between different generations of Vietnamese, Latine, and Black immigrants, refugees, and their children.

James Huỳnh headshot

James Huỳnh (he/him/his) grew up in desert-turned-suburbia Fontana, CA. He is the son of Vietnamese refugees who come from the city of Huế, Việt Nam. Huỳnh is a PhD student in Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. He is also a Health Policy Research Scholar, a fellowship funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. His scholarly and activist commitments are to address the health impacts of racial capitalism, heterosexism, and patriarchy among queer Asian/Americans. He focuses on community well-being, family and kinship, and grassroots organizing as paths to challenging systems of power. Prior to graduate school, Huỳnh was a Fulbright Fellow in Việt Nam.

Outside of academia, Huỳnh is Chair of the Board of Directors of Viet Rainbow of Orange County (VROC), a grassroots organization that builds community and mobilizes intergenerationally primarily with LGBTQ+ Vietnamese Americans and their loved ones through research, education, and advocacy.

Huỳnh earned his MA in Asian American Studies and MPH in Community Health Sciences from UCLA and a BA in Human Biology from Stanford University.

“My health equity work seeks to bridge the power of academic research and grassroots community organizing to directly address the structural causes of health inequities by highlighting how queer communities are building life-giving institutions such as chosen families and cultural practices of finding pleasure and joy. I hope to develop an intergenerational LGBTQ+ community program that will increase the collective power of LGBTQ+ people of color and their loved ones in Orange County.” —James Huỳnh

Angelica Johnsen

Project: Develop a de-escalation toolkit for medical providers working with patients who are experiencing mental health crises, providing guidance on de-escalating high-acuity mental health crises and stabilizing patients who are in distress, without correctional measures, such as incarceration, chemical, or physical restraints.

Angelica Johnsen headshot

Angelica Johnsen is a rising fourth-year medical student in the Charles R. Drew/UCLA Medical Education Program. She hails from New Jersey and is the proud daughter of two Filipino nurses.

During her time in medical school, Johnsen has enrolled patients onto health insurance, advocated for the rights of formerly-incarcerated patients, volunteered with the LA Community Fridges project, and researched the expansion of Medicaid coverage for psychiatric medications.

In her free time, she belabors over inventing the perfect dessert and tries to organize her e-mail inbox, with varied levels of success. She intends to practice as a full-scope Family Medicine physician, emphasizing the expansion of mental health scope in the primary care setting and formalizing didactic education about medical practice in low-resource settings.

“Community safety is a topic rife with political dialogue, yet the question itself is simple: can we say we love our patients if we are trained, simply, to invoke the threat of violence when they are in crisis? Our health care culture relies heavily on such security measures that have historically harmed patients, especially those in mental health crises. However, I dream for better. I envision a future in which I can tell my patients that they will be safe in my care, knowing definitively that it will be true.” —Angelica Johnsen

Gwendolyn Lee

Project: Create an obesity and weight management program for adults who obtain health care at Los Angeles County safety net hospitals.

Angelica Johnsen headshot

Gwendolyn Lee is passionate about improving health equity and working at the intersection of healthcare, business, and government. She has worked in state government at the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, where she researched pharmaceutical pricing policies and at the Massachusetts eHealth Institute, where she developed a government grant program for digital health startups. Lee further advanced digital health and health technology in the private sector, serving as a scholar at Flare Capital Partners and a fellow at Innospark Ventures, where she identified innovative health technology to improve access to and quality of health care.

Lee holds an MPP from Harvard Kennedy School (2020) and a BA from the Princeton School of Public & International Affairs (2016). She is currently earning an MD from the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine (2022). Lee is looking forward to internal medicine residency at UCSF in their UCPC (primary care) program after graduation and providing holistic healthcare to her patients, with a focus on preventive and lifestyle medicine.

“Raised in a multigenerational immigrant household, I grew up enjoying traditional recipes and the expression of love through home-cooked meals. When counseling patients on lifestyle interventions for obesity and diabetes, I discovered that our well-intentioned but generic recommendations were often difficult to reconcile with cultural and family traditions. My project aims to embrace cultural and individual values surrounding food, integrate behavioral health in a culturally conscious way, and build communities committed to preventive health care and healthy habits. —Gwendolyn Lee

Alma Lopez

Project: Work with community clinics to address gaps and disparities in maternal mental health, including developing a series of workshops for pregnant and recently pregnant women for education on peripartum mental health and recognition of symptoms.

Alma Lopez headshot

Alma Lopez is a first-generation dual degree MD and Master of Public Policy student at UCLA, graduating in 2023. She was born and mostly raised in Los Angeles, where she noticed early on disparities in areas such as education, health, and housing across the city. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience with a minor in Anthropology at UCLA in 2017. During this time, she mentored and tutored elementary and high school students from historically marginalized backgrounds, conducted research in the genetics of neurodegenerative diseases, and danced with the Grupo Folklorico de UCLA. She subsequently took a gap year during which she worked as a scribe and volunteered as a medical Spanish interpreter.

In 2018, Lopez entered medical school with the Program in Medical Education — Leadership and Advocacy (PRIME-LA) at UCLA, which trains future physicians interested in addressing health disparities with a concurrent master’s degree. She has continued to mentor pre-medical students who are underrepresented in medicine and to engage in health disparities research. She hopes to complete a residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology, during which she will continue pursuing her passions for reproductive justice, health equity, and policy advocacy through an intersectional lens.

As an aspiring OBGYN, I am interested in addressing disparities in maternal morbidity and mortality, including maternal mental health conditions which disproportionately affect systemically marginalized groups. I hope that through the Health Equity Challenge, we can help address maternal mental health inequities among Los Angeles communities of color and low socioeconomic status, and bridge access gaps to compassionate quality care.” —Alma Lopez

Michelle K. Nakphong

Project: Develop a community-level patient education approach to educate immigrant women about their rights to high-quality care and empower them in their own care, and a health care systems audit and feedback approach aimed at designing a quality improvement program within the health care system.

Michelle Nakphong headshot
Michelle K. Nakphong is a PhD candidate in Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Prior to UCLA, Nakphong’s decade-long work with low-income, marginalized communities in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Bangkok, and on the Thai-Myanmar border showed her the real-life consequences of structural inequities on health. Her research examines how social disparities translate to poorer health care access and lower quality of care with a focus on women and children, particularly immigrants.

As a student, Nakphong has worked on the Research on Immigrant Health and State Policy (RIGHTS) study at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, investigating Latinx and Asian immigrants’ experience of maternity care as well as how they navigate complex intersections of immigration, employment, and health care policies.

Beginning summer 2022, she will be a post-doctoral scholar at UCSF, working on a guaranteed income study for low-income, emerging Black adults.

“I chose this topic because my research showed me that low-income immigrant women are particularly vulnerable to disrespect and poor quality maternal health care. I hope that this project will develop an intervention to improve the quality of maternal care for immigrant women that can be scaled and implemented more broadly.” —Michelle K. Nakphong

Bianca Salvetti

Project: Implement an interactive, web-based decision aid on gender-affirming treatment, with balanced information on treatment benefits, risks, resources, and potential long-term effects, to improve knowledge and decisional conflict amongst transgender and gender diverse youth and their caregivers.

Bianca Salvetti headshot

Bianca Salvetti, DNP(c), CNS, CPNP, (she/her/hers), has been a pediatric nurse for more than 15 years, transitioning from a beside RN in the PICU to a nurse practitioner in the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). She has a long history of engaging in clinical and research program development that focuses on improving the physical and mental health of adolescents and young adults experiencing homelessness or substance use, adolescents and young adults with complex medical conditions, young men who have sex with men, and gender and sexual minorities.

Salvetti was the principal investigator for a novel web-based study assessing chest binding practices in transgender and gender diverse adolescents and young adults, and its effects on mental health, which was selected by the Journal of Adolescent Health as one of 2021’s Distinguished Dozen.

As a national lecturer, she educates healthcare providers, organizations, families, and youth on various topics to improve adolescents and young adults health. She is currently pursuing her doctoral degree at UCLA by implementing a web-based decision aid on gender affirming treatment to improve knowledge and decisional conflict amongst transgender and gender diverse youth and their caregivers.

“Transgender and gender diverse (TGD) youth face many health care disparities, such an increased risk of suicide, homicide, and victimization. These disparities can be mitigated by early access to gender affirming treatment (GAT) and parental support. My project aims to develop an interactive decision aid to improve knowledge regarding GAT and improve access to age-appropriate care.” —Bianca Salvetti

Skye Shodahl

Project: Advance breast/chestfeeding equity in Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) pregnant and lactating parents — an overlooked and understudied population. Adapt a culturally and linguistically relevant prenatal breast/chestfeeding toolkit that was developed for AANHPI expectant parents-to-be and being piloted in the Chinese and Vietnamese communities to other AANHPI ethnic groups in California.

Skye Shodahl headshot

Skye Shodahl is a second-year doctoral student in the Community Health Sciences Department within the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Broadly, her research interests include the social determinants of maternal and child nutrition among Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities. More specifically, Shodahl is interested in the impact of structural factors (i.e., physical, economic, political, and sociocultural) on aspects of infant feeding (i.e., supplementation rates, exclusivity rates) and maternal and child health disparities in AANHPI communities.

Shodahl hopes her research will be a catalyst for the development of relevant interventions and transformative policies critical to making the health of AANHPI women, children, and families a shared value.

“During my time with the Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Lactation Collaborative of California, I have seen how damaging the longstanding model minority stereotype has been to the advancement of maternal and child health for AANHPI communities. It has not only led to a dearth of research on this population but has produced persistent gaps in advocating for funding and resources to support these vulnerable communities. For these reasons, I am looking forward to the opportunity to support the Collaborative in their groundbreaking efforts to attain breast/chest feeding equity for AANPI women, children, and families.—Skye Shodahl