October 26, 2023

| by
Jonathan B. Waller

At the outset of Zonía Moore’s application process for the prestigious Fulbright scholarship program, her father Gordon Moore suddenly died from a heart attack on the eve of a decisive step in her interviews.  

It wasn’t the only hardship to hit amid Moore’s pursuit of one of the most significant projects of her academic life, taken in between her third and fourth years of medical school at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM). Over 10 months last year, she worked out of Hospital Manuel Gea González in Mexico City, conducting research on a number of skin conditions including melasma, eczema, and vitiligo to determine how the hospital treated their dermatology outpatients and tailored treatments for skin of color. 

Moore’s experience is a perfect example of how PSOM students are regularly pushed to think beyond their sphere of immediate experience. They are encouraged to think beyond the bedside, to see not only the patients in the clinic, but those who can’t afford a doctor’s visit. They are called to fill gaps in access for underserved and under-represented people and communities, across the country and the world.  

This often involves creative problem solving, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and a determination to channel their abilities to their fullest use.  

Hardship on the Road to Advanced Levels of Scholarship 

Moore, from Bridgetown, Barbados and Sewickley, Pennsylvania, began her fourth year of medical school at Penn this fall, continuing a remarkably accomplished educational career. She came to Penn a summa cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College with a degree in Hispanic Studies and Romance Languages & Literatures.  

Over the course of her educational career, she has worked on medical projects in Latin America and Africa while also growing as an activist, musician, and artist. She has carried out entrepreneurship work, through the PennHealthX program, on SANIPACK, a portable, battery powered N95 mask sterilizer that won recognition by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s COVID for Africa Innovation Competition and was selected for investment by the Clinton Foundation.  

When it came to her Fulbright research, the project was actually the easy part. Initially, she planned to work closely with Dr. Roberto Estrada-Castañón, a dermatologist in private practice who dedicated his weekends to community dermatology outreach in Guerrero, Mexico and other rural communities. Together, they crafted a Fulbright grant proposal with this objective in mind.  

 Moore’s father’s sudden death changed her perspective on the work. She dedicates her medical career and Fulbright to his larger-than-life memory.  

“The Fulbright Scholarship gave me the ability to take a bit of a break from my med school studies, and to process my grief while focusing on work I feel really passionate about,” she explained. “I think part of it was also trying not to throw away all the opportunities that I’d worked so hard to get, and that my father had been so supportive toward.” 

With grit and resolve, she continued and was granted funding for her project. 

However, while preparing for her trip, Moore received word from the U.S. government advising her to stay in Mexico City instead of pursuing her original plan of working full-time in Guerrero, in the interest of personal safety. This unexpected turn required her to reconsider much of her project’s initial focus and find a new project sponsor. 

And then Estrada passed away from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Already on a path plagued with hardships, Moore was suddenly challenged to face a drastic shift in her plans without her mentor and research partner.  

Connecting Care for Rural Populations in Mexico 

Zonía Moore with a group of researchers at Hospital Manuel Gea González in Mexico City

After some months of grieving, and with the blessing of Estrada’s family, Moore began seeking out new avenues to carry on her and Estrada’s work. Eventually, she was able to connect with a company that delivered specialist doctors to small towns in Mexico. What set this initiative apart was its blend of both for-profit and not-for-profit elements. Instead of building dedicated facilities, they utilized existing consultorios (clinics) in rural areas. While these clinics might not have been perfectly suited to every specialty, they still allowed doctors to provide quality care to local residents. 

A unique aspect of Estrada’s approach that inspired Moore was a collaboration with Mexico’s public health insurer which provided common medications. This facilitated access to essential drugs, enhancing the quality of care provided in these underserved regions. Additionally, Moore leveraged the continued presence of pharmaceutical drug representatives in Mexico to obtain samples that could significantly benefit patients with dermatological conditions.  

“There’s a pretty strong network of pharmaceutical reps that are able to provide free dermatology samples, which can go a very long way in helping patients through whatever symptoms they enter the clinic with,” said Moore. “Whether it’s scabies or psoriasis or atopic dermatitis, those samples can sometimes cover an entire three-month treatment course for someone who otherwise couldn’t afford treatment.” 

A Career Focus on Building a Healthier Global Community 

Moore’s research approach reflects her commitment to making a positive impact on health care and aligns with her evolving career vision by allowing her to adapt and find innovative ways to effectively reach people where they are, irrespective of location or circumstances. Upon graduation, Moore plans to complete a year of her residency in the United States but hopes to finish in Mexico, though she is still deciding. 

“This ended up becoming a really valuable project and provides a lot of insightful data that can be applied toward general public health in Mexico,” said Moore. “I’ve presented my findings at a few conferences already, and I’m working on a publication that integrates further data from the project so it can inform future community dermatology programs both here in the U.S. and in other countries.” 

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