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VA Researchers Who Served: Dr. Yani Leyva

VA Palo Alto Health Care System

June 11, 2018

Dr. Yani Leyva is a clinical psychologist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.
Dr. Yani Leyva is a clinical psychologist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

Dr. Yani Leyva is a clinical psychologist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

Dr. Yani Leyva, an Army Veteran, is a clinical psychologist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California. She provides clinical services to Veterans in the Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program (HVRP), a 50-bed, 180-day residential facility. Many of these Vets have been dually diagnosed with substance use disorders, PTSD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, and psychotic spectrum disorders. Some also carry symptoms of traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, and other cognitive impairments and medical issues. She conducts individual therapy, psychoeducation, and group facilitation. She has been a co-researcher on studies at the Palo Alto VA and the San Francisco VA and hopes to embark on a research project at the Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program that is expected to begin later this year.

What motivated you to join the military?

At age 19, I felt that joining the military seemed like a sound option. In accompanying a friend to the recruitment center, I became interested in the idea of an adventure that provided structure and direction, both of which I felt I needed. That same day, I signed up to join the Army.

What inspired your research career?

My research career began as an opportunity that presented itself at the right time. After I successfully defended my dissertation and completed the clinical psychology program at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Francisco, one of my mentors offered me a clinical research postdoctoral staff position at the Palo Alto VA. This proved to be a good match. The position enhanced my research experience and complemented my then budding clinical expertise.

Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?

I’m fortunate to have had excellent mentors during graduate school and my post-doctoral work. They included clinical psychologist Dr. Quyen Tiet and epidemiologist Dr. Deborah Barnes. I also had a fine mentor during my days as an early career psychologist, clinical psychologist Dr. Timothy Ramsey. My mentors have been supportive, collaborative, and knowledgeable, all of which has helped shape my mindset as it relates to my clinical and research endeavors.

In this 1998 photo, Yani Leyva is outside a building that she and her team were repairing in Camp Zama, a U.S. Army post in Japan.
In this 1998 photo, Yani Leyva is outside a building that she and her team were repairing in Camp Zama, a U.S. Army post in Japan.

In this 1998 photo, Yani Leyva is outside a building that she and her team were repairing in Camp Zama, a U.S. Army post in Japan.

When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.

From 1997 to 2005, I served as a combat engineer with a specialty as an electrician in the U.S. Army Reserve in Guam and in Vallejo, California. My military experience allowed me to grow as a natural leader. I worked my way up from being a private to a non-commissioned officer as a sergeant. During my service in Guam, I traveled to Japan, Korea, and Hawaii, where my unit was tasked to construct and fix old buildings. My military involvement has taught me a lot about my strengths, my capabilities, and my ability to work efficiently and effectively with people on and outside of my team.

What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?

I’ve managed research projects that were specific to the early detection of substance use disorders in VA primary care settings. I have also managed exercise projects that were aimed at preventing the loss of independence in older adults with dementia. We recruited Veterans and non-Veterans for those projects. Early intervention and prevention studies are critical components of VA’s health care system. Those types of studies can reduce health complications for Veterans and improve the well-being of Veterans and their families. In a natural consequence of better health and well-being, the VA system may benefit from reduced overall health care costs. As a clinical psychologist in the Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program (HVRP) at VA Palo Alto, I hope to remain engaged in research studies that are aimed at improving outcomes for our Veterans.

Did your military experience inspire you to pursue a career as a VA researcher? Is your military experience connected in some way to your VA research?

My military experience did not directly inspire me to pursue a career as a VA researcher. However, my experience as a research associate volunteer at the San Francisco VA and my use of VA as a Veteran with a spinal cord injury that I experienced during military training triggered my passion for conducting research and being a clinician at VA.

How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your research?

As health care providers, we aim to give the best quality of care to Veterans and their families, with the hope of providing a solid foundation of support and improving their quality of life. I’m honored to have been a part of research teams that conducted studies that were geared toward early detection and early intervention. I’m also grateful for the chance to be involved in outcome studies and program evaluation with HVRP. My hope is that we continue to enhance and improve the services that we provide to benefit those whom we serve.

Does being a Veteran give you a greater emotional tie to the work you’re doing or more insight into Veterans’ needs?

As a Veteran with a disability, I’m greatly committed to providing Veterans with the best possible care. I’m also a big proponent of encouraging Veterans to actively engage in research studies that can improve the level of care they receive at VA.

Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success? What motivational tips would you share?

Support is critical if we are to succeed. We must be willing to support others but also accept support from others. Equally important is the passion to make a difference, to take the time to listen—to really listen—and to have the heart to empathize and not judge. Meeting the Veterans where they are and encouraging them to collaborate in their own treatment, as well as providing them with tools and resources to work with, may make Veterans more committed to improving their health and well-being. Hopefully, that will result in a better life for them and their families.

What’s the next step for you in your VA career?

As a health care provider, I plan to stay involved in research work. We are starting a small research group at HVRP. I’m excited to incorporate my research experience into my work as a clinician, as I aim to continue my career as a scientist-practitioner.

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