CU Denver’s Zenetta Zepeda Aims to Help Change the Medical Research Field

January 22, 2024

Raised in Denver, Zenetta Zepeda grew up in the powwow circle as a jingle dancer. Dancing was a way to connect with her heritage—Sicangu Lakota and Navajo of the Deeshchii’nii Clan on her mother’s side, and Vietnamese on her father’s side. She liked that through the dance, she was a healer in her community. What she didn’t know was that one day she’d be able to combine that with another goal: getting a college degree to impact change in the medical field.  

By chance, she found a CU Denver program that intrigued her. “I saw an opening for the Environmental Stewardship of Indigenous Lands certificate, and I cold emailed the director, Timberley Roane,” she said. Zepeda had a few credits from other schools and was unsure of how to sort through the admissions process, but she figured she should at least ask some questions. “Dr. Roane took a chance on me,” Zepeda said. “And I don’t think I would have made it where I am today it if it wasn’t for her.” 

Zepeda consults with her mentor Dr. Timberley Roane, PhD.

Now, Zepeda is majoring in biology, with a minor in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience and certificates in Environmental Stewardship of Indigenous Lands and in American Indian Studies from CU Denver. And she’s got a clear path for the future, with a job in a research lab at CU Anschutz and a plan to pursue a MD/PhD in neuroscience or neurosurgery.  

Like many CU Denver students, Zepeda transferred to the university looking for an academic program that would work for her and her life. The downtown location also meant that Zepeda would be close to family, including her two younger sisters and her father.  

“These are my moccasins,” said Zepeda. “I’m a jingle dress dancer in my traditional life, and I’m a pre-med student in my academic life, which means I get to be a holistic healer in both.” Zepeda made these moccasins, which include her family’s pattern in the design, with her grandmother.

A summer research training program, where she got to participate first-hand in research that looks at neurologic music therapy for enhancing fine motor control in Parkinson’s Disease, got her started. “It changed my life,” Zepeda said. At CU Denver, she found researchers and professors that were looking at academics in new ways and she began to see how she could build bridges between her heritage and her studies. “I want to change the narrative and the way research in medicine is done in a Western context.”  

From there, through classroom experience, research opportunities, and mentorship, Zepeda found a space that felt safe—in many ways. There was associate professor Marino J. Resendiz, PhD, who opened his organic chemistry class with a land acknowledgment. And people, like Dr. Roane, who helped her navigate the aftermath of her mother’s death from alcohol and drug abuse. “CU Denver made me feel safe,” Zepeda said. “It was always a no-judge zone.”  

As she succeeded in the classroom, other opportunities and resources were available. She became a EURēCA! Scholar, which provided a stipend to conduct research at the Thompson Laboratory in the neurosurgery lab at CU Anschutz. Through this, she was able to quit a part-time job and focus on her academic goals while paying for school and finding financial stability. “These were opportunities because people saw me for who I was, when I didn’t see it in myself,” Zepeda said.  

She also joined Aspen Institute’s Fresh Tracks program, which helps empower youth of color. It has allowed her to work on a cross-cultural project to better understand what well-being means in different communities, including Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people. As a result of that work, she recently travelled to Mombasa, Kenya, to discuss the project and what resilience means to her. Now, she’s working with people she met there—from all over the world—to start a robotics club (Zepeda also coaches a high school robotics team at the Denver School of Science and Technology: Green Valley Ranch High School twice a week).  

These were opportunities because people saw me for who I was, when I didn’t see it in myself.

–Zenetta Zepeda

Zepeda continues to work in the neurosurgery lab, something she feels blessed to do. “To be a part of that work?,” she said. “I, literally, go to my research job every day and think: ‘Wow. We’re doing this. OK. This is incredible!’” She’ll also start to prepare for a post-baccalaureate program and medical school, where she plans to get an MA and PhD. Ultimately, she said, she hopes to “transform the STEM and medical fields into inclusive, accessible environments for all minorities of sex, race, religion, and gender—that encompasses their journeys—because a position of longitude and latitude should not determine access to basic human rights.”   

As the first person on either side of her family to earn a college degree, she knows that she is supported by her ancestors, her family, and the CU Denver community. “I get to be the person that my ancestors prayed for and get to be the person that my mom prayed for,” Zepeda said. “I just want to honor that and then to make the world a better place for the generations after me.”