Texas Tech alumna Jessica Gray always knew she wanted to be a doctor, but as a first-generation student, she had a lot more to learn than just biology.
Dr. Jessica Gray excelled academically in high school. She always was prepared with the right answer. In fact, she did so well she graduated six months early.
But each year, there was one day that brought more questions than answers.
“Our school had college T-shirt day,” Gray said of her Dallas-area high school. “My friends wore shirts of the colleges their parents attended. But my parents didn't go to a four-year college, so I never knew what to wear.”
Gray wanted to attend a university but was unsure where to go. She had no family legacy school, so she could go anywhere, but she lacked knowledge around the process.
“I was definitely going to college,” she said. “By my junior year of high school, I had decided to be a doctor. I'm one of those people that once I put my mind to something, there's no going back.”
When her friends began taking college tours, Gray decided to ride along. They visited the University of Texas, Southern Methodist University and other Texas schools. Gray even visited Northwestern because her uncle had attended.
But when she visited Texas Tech University, Gray knew she was home.
Finding Her New Home
Gray is a board-certified family medicine physician with University Medical Center (UMC) Physicians and a clinical assistant professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC). She recently was appointed as the team physician for Texas Tech's women's basketball team.
In addition to these roles, Gray also volunteers her time as president of the board of directors for the Lubbock Children's Health Clinic, Mission Impact Chair for the March of Dimes and is a Community Advisory Board member for the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women's Health.
Gray achieved most of these accomplishments before turning 30.
For most, this kind of resume might invite a certain bravado, but it's Gray's kindness and humility that shine through. Not for lack of confidence, though. The doctor knows she is good at what she does because she worked hard to get there.
“I'm the oldest of four,” Gray said. “So, I truly was the very first in my family to go to college.”
Setting an example for her younger brothers and sisters was an honor and a responsibility she took seriously.
“Texas Tech is where I gained a lot of my confidence,” she said. “I felt empowered as an undergraduate and felt the sky was the limit for anything I wanted to pursue.”
That was a new feeling for Gray.
Bullied in middle school and into high school, the now-successful doctor didn't always have the confidence she has today.
“I was very shy and insecure during my adolescence,” she recalls. “So, moving away to college was refreshing. I had classes as an undergraduate that were really large, which was nice because no one knew you. It was a chance to try new things and come out of your shell.”
Gray was impressed by the university's bachelor of science in biology but was particularly excited about a hospital being on campus.
“That was a big pull for me,” she said. “I had my sights set on becoming a doctor, so having a hospital right on campus where I could volunteer as an undergraduate was attractive.”
Gray immediately attacked her goals at Texas Tech with as much fervor as she did in high school. The coursework was hard, but Gray remained undeterred.
There was one class in particular she'll never forget.
“I took ‘Intro to Biology' with Dr. Michael Dini,” she said. “The course was known for being very difficult, basically a weed-out course. But Dr. Dini made it bearable. He was a tough teacher, but also was really inspiring and good at what he did.
“He taught in a way that prepared you for the realities of medical school if that was your long-term goal. I remember he'd always play music before class started, usually something light. One day he was playing Lady A.”
While Gray was anxious over every exam she took, she passed and kept moving toward her goal.
Along the way, she took on a minor in chemistry, earned a staff job for Kent Hance in the Texas Tech University System's office and joined Zeta Tau Alpha. On top of this she logged countless hours of volunteer work with the child life program at UMC, while once again graduating in only three years.
But the most important memory of her undergraduate years was meeting her now-husband, Drew. He was a third-year student from Austin; the two immediately hit it off. Drew's sights were set on entering real estate after graduation.
“I'm really glad we're not both doctors,” Gray said with a laugh. “Medical school is a very intense experience, and I am not sure we would have seen each other if we'd both been pursuing a medical career.”
Rather, Drew got his career off the ground as Jessica started medical school at TTUHSC in 2012. And yes, she did that at an accelerated pace, too.
An Advocate for Women
Gray completed TTUHSC's family medicine accelerated track between 2012 to 2015 and has been practicing medicine through UMC ever since.
“The thing I love about medicine is that it's really problem-solving at its core,” Gray said. “I remember making my first independent diagnosis, which required a lot of research and looking at the problem from various angles.”
That was when Gray was only a first-year medical student.
“Even when you're the lowest on the totem pole, you can be a problem solver,” she said. “And then as time goes on, you keep practicing problem solving and you get better and better.”
That first diagnosis Gray made was unfortunately a terminal outcome, but she's also been a part of many recoveries and celebrations over the years.
The most recent of which was with her mother, Kathleen Lee.
Lee is preparing for her last round of radiation after battling breast cancer for a year. Her daughter, who specializes in women's health, has been with her every step of the way.
“It's been a battle, but this experience has brought Jessica and me closer in a different way,” Lee said. “It's clear how much she cares about me. She has sat in on some of my appointments and that brings me peace of mind, especially as she's able to help me understand some of the more technical parts of my diagnosis.”
The experience has hit home for Gray, bringing her training to life in a new way.
“My mother's diagnosis has definitely brought us closer,” Gray said. “I actually was the one who initially read her mammogram results and that was very hard. I interpreted them for her and was the one who told her she had cancer. But that also meant I got to be there for her from the beginning.”
Gray has always been a strong proponent of breast cancer screening and discusses it with her patients all the time.
“I have been able to use my mother's story to counsel patients on the importance of screening,” she said. “I have even more empathy now for patients I diagnose with breast cancer and for those undergoing treatment. I'm glad my mother is a fighter. She's one of the lucky ones and I don't take that for granted.”
This experience isn't the only thing the two women share, though.
Once Gray left for college in 2009, Kathleen decided she wanted to earn her bachelor's degree, too. Working full-time as a registered nurse (RN), Lee decided to complete the RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program that TTUHSC offers.
Now both women are Texas Tech graduates, and Lee plans to pursue her master's once she finishes radiation.
The care and attention Gray has given to her mother are not dissimilar from what she brings to her patients each day. In addition to her family medicine training, Gray also spends substantial time researching women's health and gender equitable treatments and care.
“I work with both men and women of all ages,” Gray said. “My youngest patient is two days old, and my oldest patient is 102. I enjoy seeing a wide range of patients. However, I'm specifically intrigued by women's health and wellness. That's why I got involved in the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women's Health.”
The institute researches the differences that treatment, and thus diagnoses, have across genders.
For example, the institute found that women are more likely to have atypical symptoms of heart attacks and strokes than men.
“A woman may not have any of the symptoms men present with,” Gray said. “Rather than numbness or tingling in the left arm, they might have upper back or jaw pain.”
However, many doctors have been trained to look for male-centered symptoms without knowing there are differences.
Gray also said the way men and women metabolize medication can differ.
“An Ambien study was launched back in 2013 when we realized biological women process the medication differently than men,” she said. “This has led researchers to begin to look deeper into other medications to see if there are differences when taken by different sexes.”
One of these medications is a cancer drug that was about to be FDA approved when the company realized it worked great in men but had no effect on women.
“These examples go on,” Gray said. “It's not just medication but also how female-identifying patients are treated in clinics.”
Gray has many patients come into her practice who self-report high anxiety or hormone imbalances. After running tests, in many cases, those issues are not present. When she asks the patient how they got that information, it's usually a doctor who told them.
“When a woman reports being tired or struggling with weight, some doctors just think ‘hormones,' when there could be other things happening,” Gray said. “In many of these cases, there is something going on with a woman's insulin resistance. Or perhaps their glucose is too high.”
But changing the way doctors treat men versus women will be a very real challenge to tackle because some doctors are unaware they listen to men and women differently.
The mission of the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women's Health, and Gray's own mission, is to increase the body of sex- and gender-specific evidence that dictates how medical education approaches teaching on women's and men's health.
It's for this reason Gray spends a large amount of her time investing in medical education.
“I've taught at TTUHSC for the past three years,” she said. “I'm a clinical assistant professor and try to bring the real-life experience and research I am encountering and put it in front of our students to make sure each class of doctors come out with a little more knowledge than the last.”
Gray's passion for education and holistic well-being has been noticed beyond the clinic and classroom. In addition to many local awards in past years, she was recently approached about a new opportunity that has her excited.
Starting this season, Gray will serve as the Texas Tech women's basketball team physician.
“I never imagined myself in this position at all,” said the 5-foot 3-inch doctor. “My husband and I love Texas Tech athletics and attend football and basketball games. So, when they approached me, I was really flattered. They had heard about my work and knew my focus was on women's health.”
Gray's initiative to integrate mental wellness into routine health screenings will provide the team with resources beyond physical health as well. She stresses mental health plays a huge role for athletes both on and off the court.
“One of the good things that came out of the pandemic is we're now paying more attention to mental health,” she said. “You need a good partnership with a good doctor who's going to talk to you and listen to you; you also need to be an advocate for yourself.”
Settled Down, But Not Settling
Today, Gray and her husband Drew have put down roots in Lubbock and intend to stay for the long run.
Texas Tech has many alumni who end up at the far ends of the world, but for Gray, success meant staying right here.
“We love the people here,” she said. “Even though Drew and I are both transplants, Lubbock has embraced us as its own. We've been able to build two flourishing careers from the ground up, and that's something that makes this place special. We've never felt like we needed to move to find a challenge.”
Gray said one of the most inspiring things about staying in Lubbock has been giving back to the university and community that gave her a start.
“I've had so many opportunities; it feels good to create some for others.”
And when Gray's 2-year-old son is old enough to have a college T-shirt day, he'll now have a family legacy to embrace.