San Francisco State BUILD Program Deepens Alumni's Personal Connection with their Health Research

Monica Alarcon


Joi Lee



Joi Lee grew up in a loving and nurturing family. Her parents instilled a solid work ethic in her. She saw them work hard to ensure she would have all the educational opportunities she could obtain. She praises her parents for laying out an academic path to make all her dreams come true. Attending and graduating in 2017 from San Francisco State with a B.S. in Biology and a Concentration in Physiology was one of the biggest testaments to her parent's support, sacrifices, and advocacy for higher education in the home for Joi. She is grateful to have lived in such a home environment. Her modest upbringing provided her the greatest gift, which was the support of her parents to become the first in her family to attend a four-year university and seek a career in medicine.

While at San Francisco State, she further accomplished her goals through her participation in the BUILD program.  The BUILD (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity) program is a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The program offers intensive, hands-on research and training opportunities for undergraduate students designed to prepare them to excel in doctoral programs, as well as health-related research careers.

Joi was a scholar in the inaugural cohort for this program at San Francisco State. The BUILD program provided her with the educational tools and confidence she needed to practice medicine in the future. Her preparation through the BUILD program led her to participate in various research opportunities that would make a difference in communities that struggle with health care issues and challenges. The BUILD program helped ​Joi understand and connect her personal experiences to her undergraduate research and leverage that knowledge to produce and create a successful career in medicine.


(From Left to Right) Student Natalie Warren, Professor of Biology Leticia Marquez-Magana and student Joi Lee during the inaugural San Francisco State BUILD summer research rotations

This connection resonated with her and made her think about her childhood experiences. She recalls that health care was not a priority in her family home. She believes this mindset did not stem from the fact that they did not care about their health. It was simply just not prioritized. She recalls how her father developed pain on his feet over the years because of his very physically demanding job that required him to stand for long periods. Even with the pain, he never went to the doctor. As a result, her father developed a limp that he still has today.

Joi empathizes with her father's experience. She often wonders if her father could have avoided the limp he has today if he had seen a doctor sooner.  Although she struggles with understanding the competing factors that prevented him from frequenting the doctor,  she recognizes that many of the competing factors that impeded her father's access to care also impede the access of care to others like her father. 

Through the education she received at San Francisco State, she learned that health care stigmas, cost, and lack of communication could negatively impact communities' access to health care. She praises the BUILD program for enlightening her that her personal experiences could enhance her medical, educational research, and professional career. Joi states that this connection was a "game-changer" for her. She wanted to help solve some of these health care challenges that she witnessed in her own life. The BUILD program helped direct her toward that pathway by providing significant research opportunities as an undergraduate and post-graduate student at San Francisco State.

Before Joi graduated, she led a team of students that won a pilot NIH funded SF BUILD grant of $1000.00. As a result of the award, she and her team founded the San Francisco Health Initiative. The initiative is a program driven to help low-income high school students learn about the importance of health care. It also exposes high school students to medical career opportunities and experiences.

Her inspiration for this initiative stemmed from the connections she has made through her BUILD scholar experience. She wants to help the younger generation make those health care connections early. She hopes this will inspire them to pursue a career in the medical field when they graduate high school.

Before she graduated from San Francisco, she sought placement with a team of physician-scientists whose work deeply inspired her. She worked with UC San Francisco physician-scientists Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo and Dr. Valy Fontil on several research projects.

Her research with the team assessed whether there are racial differences in primary care clinic attendance rates among low-income patients with hypertension at safety-net clinics in San Francisco. They evaluated challenges and facilitators for implementing a blood pressure treatment algorithm in a network of 12 safety-net clinics. Their project resulted in three poster abstracts at local and national conferences.

These BUILD opportunities created a research passion for Joi. When she graduated, she had a tough decision to make. She needed to decide whether she would apply to medical school or pursue a research fellowship opportunity. She ultimately decided that she wanted to continue to do research. As a result, of the networking opportunities she established as a student within the BUILD program, she was able to pursue a paid Research Fellowship with Drs. Delphine Tuot and Neil Powe on the  Kidney Awareness Registry and Education-2 (KARE2) study at UC San Francisco and San Francisco General Hospital.

This project opportunity led her to receive competitive grant funding in the form of an NIH diversity supplement to expand her work on hypertension management in the safety-net setting. Her research project resulted in a first authorship manuscript and one of the top posters at the National Kidney Foundation.

Since then, she has continued to be a part of impactful research to catalyze equity in clinical studies.  She is currently leading a research project looking at condoms and contraceptive use among mobile women in rural Kenyan and Ugandan communities under the East Africa program at UCSF. Her work has resulted in a first-author manuscript in production and a poster abstract. Joi loves to do research and looks forward to publicizing much more of her work. Her current goal is to apply to MD-PhD programs this upcoming summer, June 2021. She is interested in preventative medicine and studying epidemiology, emphasizing health policy and management for her Ph.D. component.

Joi Lee is an inspirational graduate of San Francisco State, an emblematic SF BUILD Scholar, and an agent of change through her research at UCSF.

Joi Lee Manuscripts:

  1. Lee J et al.. Albuminuria Testing by Race and Ethnicity among Patients with Hypertension with and without Diabetes. Am J Nephrol. 2019;50(1):48-54. doi: 10.1159/000500706. Epub 2019 Jun 5. PMID: 31167180; PMCID: PMC6620121.
  2. Contreras MG*, Lee J* et al.  San Francisco Health Initiative: Creating Agents of Change to Build Capacity for Free Clinic Research. Free Clin Res Collect. 2018;4: Epub 2018 Dec 31. PMID: 31346588; PMCID: PMC6658099.

    * authors contributed equally to this work.
  3. Condom usage varies by mobility and HIV status among women ages 15 to 49 in rural Kenya and Uganda Lee J et al.

Manuscript in progress with June 2021 submission target.


Joi Lee Contact Information: [email protected]