Jay-Miguel Fonticella has seen firsthand how health disparities can impact historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups. And now the Tufts University student is ready to do something about it.
“Through biological research, we have the opportunity to design therapeutics for conditions disproportionately impacting Black and Brown people,” says the fourth-year undergraduate, who is majoring in biology.
Fonticella, who uses they/them pronouns, adds, “I seek to account for the educational, nutritional, and geographical aspects that white scientists continuously fail to consider. In doing so, I aspire to uplift my BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] community while innovating novel solutions to the systemic inequities.”
We asked the 21-year-old about their studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what they had to say.
This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.
What prompted you to get into your field of study?
As an Indigenous and Latinx individual, I have personally observed the rates of cardiovascular disease within my communities of color. Nonetheless, there remains a clear absence of Black and Latinx participants and scientists involved in clinical cardiovascular research.
This is what motivates me to study biomedical science. This research can provide the opportunity to identify underlying factors and design therapeutics for the conditions disproportionately impacting Black and Brown people.
Can you tell us about the work you’ve already done, as well as your goals for the future?
My work began at my roots of Pujujil and Xeabaj in Guatemala, where I’ve helped la Clínica 32 Volcanes develop interventions to address childhood malnutrition.
Using standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), our organization screens for signs of child malnutrition by measuring deviations in the weight, height, and head circumference of children under age 5.
We then provide Indigenous mothers with nutrition education, including outlines for affordable and culturally acceptable meals, to reduce mild malnourishment. We also provide nutritional supplements to reduce malnutrition from progressing in children with severely stunted growth.
I plan to apply to MD/PhD programs to continue both clinical and research work on cardiovascular health and maternal and child health.
What obstacles do you envision encountering as you move toward your goals?
One of my most significant concerns is the aggression that I anticipate facing as an Indigenous and nonbinary person in a field that’s predominately cisgender, straight, and white. I also may feel overwhelmed by the numerous ways in which communities of color are oppressed.
Nonetheless, it is crucial that we acknowledge that we are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. As young leaders and innovators, we are fulfilling their dream. Self-empowerment is key, and I encourage us to face our doubts by prioritizing our mental health and the support of our communities.
Why do you feel it’s important to reduce health inequities within your communities?
Focusing on health disparities within my Indigenous community is important because our community faces ongoing systematic oppression from federal and healthcare infrastructures. Native families experience social determinants of health daily, including contaminated water supplies, economic instability, and a lack of nutritional knowledge.
It is also critical to acknowledge the number of anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-trans legislation passed in the year of 2021. These bills exacerbate the hardships of queer people of color, who are [often] forced into homelessness and abuse.
Until my people and all people of color have adequate access to necessities, this focus will be important.
What message would you like to give to your community?
While there is vast diversity among Indigenous peoples, I am honored to accept this scholarship as a Brown boy of the K’iche’ people, with a wide nose, almond-shaped eyes, and full lips.
We are attacked for our physical features, our languages, and virtually all aspects of our culture. There is still essentially no representation for our community in large-scale professional aspects.
Particularly to my Indigenous youth, please know that you are gifted exactly as you are. Please never feel embarrassed by how you look or where you come from because those aspects of your identity will be the keys to your success.
As Indigenous people, we bring a culture of innovation and perseverance that is needed to further progress society. Our dreams are achievable, and our previous negative experiences do not dictate the potential beauty that our future holds.
To my Black and Brown peers, I want to encourage you to continue actively creating your own spaces, particularly at predominantly white institutions. You are beyond talented and deserving of an education, and we all deserve to feel safe while developing as young professionals.
To the white students, I believe that you should intentionally work to uplift the voices of your BIPOC peers while continuing to educate yourselves.
As a person identifying as nonbinary, I also want to emphasize the pride that I hold toward my LGBTQ+ community. Please know that if you are experiencing gender dysphoria, mental health tribulations, or aggression based on your sexual orientation or gender identity that you are not alone.