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The Tale of Two Fellowships

By Asya Louis
The MayaTech Corporation

Mirella Díaz-Santos

Originally from Canóvanas, Puerto Rico, Mirella Díaz-Santos moved to Boston to pursue her master’s and doctorate degrees after completing her bachelor’s degree from the Universidad de Puerto Rico – Río Piedras. Mirella recalled feeling lost and confused as a brown, Spanish-speaking woman in snowy Massachusetts. Despite a rocky start, she went on to successfully complete her Ph.D. in clinical psychology-neuropsychology at Boston University in 2015. Since that time, Dr. Díaz-Santos has found her community and is a thriving neuropsychologist and assistant adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She is currently the Director of Research of the Hispanic Neuropsychiatric Center of Excellence at UCLA, and the chair of the mentoring and education committee of the Hispanic Neuropsychological Society.

Dr. Díaz-Santos was drawn to the Minority Fellowship Program’s (MFP) vision of “creating and maintaining a family of underrepresented minorities in academia with a passion to answer to the unique needs of our communities from an evidence-based practices and research framework.” She wanted to pursue a career that allowed her to promote and develop “training programs systematically implementing cultural competency curriculums for the practice and research of clinical neuropsychology working with the Latino/a community.” Based on the vision of the MFP program, she knew being a fellow would give her the opportunity to do just that.

Dr. Díaz-Santos made the decision to apply and was accepted as a 2011 American Psychological Association Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (MHSAS) Fellow. While Dr. Díaz-Santos did enter the MFP program, this is where her journey differs from other MFP alums. She had also applied for and was accepted to the NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein (F31) Fellowship from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and at the guidance of her supervisor, chose to pursue the F31 instead. Despite this decision, she was promised that she would “always be a part of the MFP family” and she has certainly found this to be true.

Now at UCLA, Dr. Díaz-Santos is doing the exact work she proposed for her MFP application. The UCLA Bilingual and Spanish Interdisciplinary Clinical Training Program, part of the Hispanic Neuropsychiatric Center of Excellence that Dr. Díaz-Santos directs, just partnered with Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s GENESIS program to co-facilitate virtual support groups to address the mental health needs of the Spanish-speaking and bilingual older adult community currently isolated/quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic. This collaboration started at the end of May 2020. Dr. Díaz-Santos will be working alongside GENESIS mental health providers in Los Angeles County. Dr. Díaz-Santos and the GENESIS team will assist Latino/a older adults in reducing their psychological distress while proactively ensuring they have access to basic medical and nutritional needs through consultation with social work. These virtual support groups are intended to reduce stress by tapping into their inner resilience/strengths while maintaining healthy aging, and re-building healthy social connections with other Latino/a older adults in Los Angeles County.

Dr. Díaz-Santos continues to refer to the MFP as her academic family and has found herself working closely with those in the program. She is currently working with three MFP alumni, Won-Fong Lau Johnson, Alvina Rosales, and Bridgid Mariko Conn, to present a symposium at APA 2020 focused on the experiences of women of color in academia, including how to navigate those spaces, as well as the struggles of being seen and valued in the field. Dr. Lau Johnson, a 2009 Psychology Summer Institute Fellow, now works for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Washington; Dr. Rosales, a 2014 MHSAS Predoctoral Fellow, is now an Associate Director of Pain Rehabilitation Program and Lead Psychologist for the Division of Pain Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; and Dr. Mariko Conn, a 2013 Psychology Summer Institute Fellow, now works for the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children's Hospital Los Angeles and is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Keck School of Medicine at University of Southern California.

Although Dr. Díaz-Santos did not complete her MFP fellowship, she remarked that she is “beyond blessed to be a part of this family, and to find family members along [her] ongoing journey.” For anyone interested in applying for the MFP fellowship, she says “if you want to make it far in academia, you want to be a part of the MFP family.”