It was a day 10 years in the making for Jacqueline Zayas. On a Sunday afternoon in late May, surrounded by classmates and a contingent of her loved ones, Dr. Zayas officially earned her medical degree as part of Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine’s class of 2021.

“It was surreal, it seemed like this day would never come at times,” says Dr. Zayas, of the many hours spent in the lab and classroom working toward her M.D., and Ph.D. For as long as she could remember, Dr. Zayas, who hails from Miami, Fla., says she would tell her family that she wanted to become a doctor. Her path to Mayo Clinic began with what she describes as a happy coincidence.

While an undergraduate student studying biological sciences at Florida International University, she met Bruce Horazdovsky, Ph.D., associate director of student affairs for the Mayo Clinic Medical Scientist Training Program. He was at the college looking to recruit underrepresented minority students for Mayo’s various education programs, including the Medical Scientist Training Program, also known as the M.D. - Ph.D. program. Graduates of this combined degree program benefit from the clinical training of Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine and the research education and resources of Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.  

Jacqueline Zayas, M.D., Ph.D., with her daughter Madeline, at Match Day. Dr. Zayas will continue her training at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and then move on to a residency at the University of Colorado.

Dr. Horazdovsky encouraged Dr. Zayas to apply to Mayo Clinic’s Post Baccalaureate Research Program (PREP), a program designed to strengthen the research skills of those looking to pursue medical or graduate degree. Dr. Zayas was accepted, viewing the program as an opportunity to observe clinician investigators and see firsthand how the worlds of research and patient care could successfully blend. She began the PREP program, choosing the pharmacogenomics lab of Liewei Wang, M.D., Ph.D. In this translational lab, Dr. Zayas and team used patient-derived tumor samples to inform their research and improve clinical practice. Dr. Zayas says her experience at Dr. Wang’s lab inched her closer to deciding to pursue Mayo’s M.D. - Ph.D. program. Shadowing clinician-researcher Naveen Pereira, M.D., she says, further cemented her path.

“I met Dr. Pereira through our shared pharmacogenomics interests and knew him as a scientist. He welcomed me to join the hospital team that was taking care of critically ill heart failure patients at Saint Marys. I listened in on transplant rounds and was in awe of their interdisciplinary approach," she says. 

It gave her the opportunity to see Mayo Clinic values in action and witness the scientific achievement of a total artificial heart procedure.

"After that, I just knew I wanted to be the type of physician-scientist embodied by Dr. Pereira,” says Zayas, who was accepted into Mayo Clinic's Medical Scientist Training Program after spending two years at Dr. Wang’s lab.

She had multiple places to choose from for medical school, Zayas recalls, saying, “I decided to stay at Mayo Clinic after seeing the way Mayo operates and how the Mayo Clinic values are intertwined into every part of the clinical practice, education and research.”

Blending Two Disciplines

The M.D. - Ph.D. program that Dr. Zayas pursued took her eight years to complete. She split up her clinical and research studies, beginning with two years of medical school, followed by four years of Ph.D. studies, and then completing the remaining two years of medical school. After the first two years of medical school, she returned to Dr. Wang’s lab for her Ph.D. program.

“I had such a wonderful experience in Dr.  Wang’s lab as a PREP student that I decided to continue my Ph.D. training under her mentorship,” she says.

“Jackie’s thesis work focused on the identification and understanding of the mechanisms underlying chemotherapy resistance in the treatment of breast cancer. Her work will help future translation into better individualized breast cancer therapy,” says Dr. Wang of her mentee.

In addition to working with Dr. Wang, Dr. Zayas' natural curiosity led her to other Mayo Clinic researchers. She soon became immersed in a variety of research projects across multiple medical areas ranging from breastfeeding research aimed to understand provider recommendations to studying the effects of acupuncture and yoga after cancer treatment.

“I have been impressed by her curiosity, her resilience and her focus on excellence in all arenas of her life,” says Dr. Zayas’ dermatology mentor Olayemi Sokumbi, M.D.

“Research can be frustrating because things do not always go as planned. Jackie’s attitude was always upbeat and positive, which can help immensely on this long journey to become an M.D.-Ph.D.” says Dr. Zayas’ pharmacogenomics mentor Richard Weinshilboum, M.D. 

Choosing A Specialty

The vast exposure Dr. Zayas had through her clinical and research training led her to her true passion – dermatology.

“Dermatology has so many wonderful aspects to it. There is an opportunity to take care of all types of patients – some with acute conditions and others with chronic conditions where you can see the patients for years to help them manage their illness,” says Dr. Zayas. “As a Hispanic woman, I am excited to meet the needs of people with different skin colors and just giving back to my community that is giving me so much.”

As Dr. Zayas readies for her next step in training, she is already pensively thinking about the type of physician she wants to be to her patients. She says the genuine compassion she witnessed at Mayo — where the primary value is that the needs of the patient come first — over the last decade left an indelible impression.

“The needs of the patient come first is such a powerful moral compass I keep coming back to.”

— Julie Janovsky-Mason, July 2021