Dr. Jennifer Pena and her husband Dr. Benton R. Franklin spend time and effort rescuing dogs in their home of San Juan, Puerto Rico. As with any cause that one would be passionate about, there are some days that are tougher than others. In the end, knowing they can save an animal and either find it a new home or add a new member to their own family makes the effort worthwhile.
“We’re big rescuers,” she shared. “We have a large stray population, and my Grandmama taught me to feed and take care of the strays,”
She met Benton in the military, and their common bond of service in both military and medicine has kept them together since.
“He actually just got out of the military in July of this year. He’s a general surgeon, and he’s the smart one. We served together in the Medical Corps. The military will always be a part of who we are individually and as a couple.”
Pena lives with Benton in San Juan now, but Puerto Rico is also where her origin story began. She, along with her sister, was raised by her mother and maternal grandparents. She knew her father, but her parents weren’t together. So, she spent more time with her mother, who was also working full-time as a nurse.
“My grandparents were instrumental in our upbringing,” she said. “I was a very active little girl, very much a tom boy,” she recalled. “I was very much into sports and always playing outside, getting dirty. Definitely not the girly type.”
Pena was also into martial arts, and she eventually earned a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. That passion for activity served as a pillar in her childhood, but as with everything else in her life, she committed even more, eventually becoming a member of the Puerto Rico national team. As a finweight competitor, she earned several local, state, and national awards.
Pena shared about her time competing, “You know the best part of that? It was fun, it was never something I planned for, but developed a talent for it.”
She excelled in schoolwork as well. Pena said that when she was in high school, she and her mother would study together because she had gone to college to get her Masters degree in Healthcare Administration. Her mother would become a healthcare administrator following that time. As for Pena, she went on to Yale University and graduated in 2004 with degrees in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, and Spanish Language and Literature. She would eventually follow in the footsteps of her father, uncles, and several members of her family by joining the military, specifically the United States Army. Her father was an officer and a pharmacist, which is yet another medical field connection for her. Military service fulfilled two needs for Pena. Besides her service to the country, it served as a catapult for another dream that connects her to her mother.
“It helped me with medical school,” she said, but it’s not like the concept of service was foreign to her.
“I grew up around the military, I grew up going to the Commissary and being around the military community,” she explained. “It was an easy decision to make.”
Pena entered active duty in 2008 after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. That commitment to service and medical school would allow her to not only support those she served with, but it led her to breaking down barriers. After working in Fort Belvoir’s new hospital, she would be nominated and accepted to serve as a physician in the White House Medical Unit under both Presidents Obama and Trump. Unbeknownst to her at that time, she was breaking barriers for Latina girls everywhere. Pena was the first Latina to serve the White House as a physician. It wasn’t ever a goal she pursued, nor was it spoken about in a big way. She was informed of this by a colleague during a random conversation.
“It was one of those right place, right time things,” she said humbly. “It was one of my physician assistants, who was also Puerto Rican, who pointed it out. There is a plaque with names on it, and he pointed out that there were no other Latinas on that plaque.”
After over a decade of total service, Pena left active duty in 2019. Besides her work in rescuing, she also currently works as Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer for Measured, a Y-Combinator health startup company providing weight management solutions and nutritional services. Beyond that, she also works with Oya Care (the first women’s virtual health clinic in Brazil) as a Medical Advisor to the Board. She is also involved with Julie Products, Inc., a provider of over-the-counter emergency contraception options for women in the United States. She has also made numerous TV appearances as a medical expert and spoke at numerous events for digital health, telehealth, Veteran matters, and even in efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Along the way, she received numerous honors, including named one of Business Insider’s “30 Leaders Under 40 Changing Healthcare in 2021.” That same year, Pena was named Veteran of the Year by Latina Style Magazine, a tribute to her service and difference. In the eyes of many, she is both a hero and trailblazer. She hopes her example of fitness, service, and commitment to others can be a light for young people that want to make a similar impact on their communities, country, or even the world.
“You have to see one to be one. I think that’s important to me because you’re sheltered a bit in Puerto Rico, and you don’t see that representation at those levels. If you don’t see people that look like you, you can’t see yourself in those positions. For me, it was Antonia Novello, who was Surgeon General. So, to the young girl reading this, now you see it. You can be it.”
Follow Pena @jennifer.m.pena on Instagram