School of Nursing professor examines push-pull phenomenon on pregnancy, depression

While working on her doctoral degree in human development, Mary Lou de Leon Siantz visited a home where a woman, lying on a box-spring mattress covered in newspaper and surrounded by flies, within minutes of delivering a baby. The experience left a lasting impression. Now this professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis devotes her life and research to improving women’s health ― from birth through the reproductive years and as they age.

The oldest of six children and daughter of a Latina immigrant, de Leon Siantz’s current research focuses on the well-being of Hispanic immigrant adolescents and identifying what education will inform better outcomes and produce healthy people.

“These girls are part of a population that contributes to the U.S. economy, provides valuable labor and pays taxes on everything they buy. If anything, it makes economic sense to ensure they have the access to resources that help them remain healthy while they’re here,” de Leon Siantz said.

According to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, California receives $2.7 billion in tax revenue from households headed by unauthorized immigrants. Migrant research historically focused on men, seen as the economic players, with women viewed as passive followers. Yet little research exists on the health and well-being of more than 20 million immigrant women and girls who live in the United States today, the largest segment from Mexico. The same push-and-pull factors that induce men to locate to a new country push adolescent girls to leave their homes and pull them to new locales, such as better living conditions, and opportunities to improve their socioeconomic status and help their families in their home country.

Migrant teen
Ensuring that immigrant teenage girls have access to resources that help them remain healthy in America is an important research priority for Professor Mary Lou de Leon Siantz.

“There exists a Hispanic health paradox. The first generation, of Mexican origin, who have migrated here are in good health. They do not access U.S. health care services often, if at all,” Siantz explained. “Little is known about the migration experience of these girls. They leave Mexico healthy, but their risk factors experienced during migration and what might enable them to remain healthy after they arrive in the U.S. are not known.”

De Leon Siantz anticipates her results will drive development of future research, growth of binational partnerships to support the health of migrant and immigrant girls on both sides of the border, and direct international policies that are responsive to the health risks.
In addition to her research, De Leon Siantz serves as director of the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science (CAMPOS), a research center aimed at supporting the discovery of knowledge by promoting women in science, starting with Latina STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) scholars. She is also an affiliated faculty member with the Migration and Health Research Center, a collaboration between the UC Davis and UC Berkeley campuses dedicated to conducting research to improve the health of migrant populations in California and around the globe.

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi issued a call to become a University of the 21st Century by becoming “global in our reach and perspective and use this attribute to change our attitudes and understanding.” De Leon Siantz’s leadership in health equity efforts illustrates Katehi’s call to create an environment that supports human equity to ensure that a diverse faculty, staff and students a shared responsibility for supporting and enabling the success of others

“In the 21st century, it is the right thing to do in partnership with our neighbors,” de Leon said.