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Top grad helps address health-care disparities

June 11, 2013

Nicole Sitkin during Grand Rounds at the UC Davis Medical Center

Nicole Sitkin was awarded the University Medal for excellence in undergraduate studies, outstanding community service and the promise of future scholarship and contributions to society. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

The University of California, Davis, thinks Nicole Sitkin is going to go places and have an impact on the world — it has named her this year's University Medalist as the top graduating senior.

And Sitkin, who earned a bachelor's degree in December, is well on her way.

First as an undergraduate and now working at the university's School of Medicine, Sitkin is already making contributions to medical research and helping address disparities in health care, especially for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) populations.

"She is superlative — a great reflection of Davis," said Diana Farmer, chair of the medical school's Department of Surgery and surgeon in chief of the Children's Hospital.

The University Medal is awarded for excellence in undergraduate studies, outstanding community service and the promise of future scholarship and contributions to society. Past recipients include the U.S. Treasury Department’s chief economist, the president of a Thai university, doctors, engineers and others whose work ranges from seeking a cure for cancer to helping the poor in developing countries.

Sitkin will be presented with the award, including a plaque and a $2,000 honorarium, at the commencement of the College of Biological Sciences on Friday, June 14.

A graduate of Campolindo High School in Moraga, Calif., Sitkin achieved a cumulative grade point average of 3.97 on her way to earning a bachelor's degree in neurobiology, physiology and behavior. She is bound for medical school to become a clinician-researcher and study the interaction of basic biology and human experience.

"I want to explore scientific puzzles, but also to challenge health disparities, revealing more about their causes and potential solutions," Sitkin wrote in her award application.

Work at UC Davis School of Medicine

Since January, she has been working as a junior specialist in the UC Davis surgery department's Surgical Bioengineering Laboratory, where she writes and edits grants and other scientific material and prepares conference presentations. At Farmer's invitation, she attends weekly grand rounds, educational forums for faculty, medical residents and students, and community physicians.

Continuing an involvement she began as an undergraduate, Sitkin is a member of the medical school's task force for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the electronic health record as a step toward improving health care for LGBT individuals.

She is involved in planning an evaluation of the impact of offering individuals the opportunity to declare sexual orientation and gender identity in the health record. Many feel that ending the unspoken "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in medicine may improve health care and possibly health outcomes for a population that experiences serious health disparities.

Working with Edward Callahan, associate dean of academic personnel at the medical school, she has co-authored manuscripts on related topics, including the development of a curriculum to help medical students gain cultural competency about sexual orientation and gender identity.

She is helping establish a new internship for undergraduates interested in sexual orientation and gender identify in the context of medicine and also creating a health information resource for young queer women.

Sitkin's mentors, from her undergraduate career and now at the health system, rave about her intelligence, communications skills and commitment to public service. They have great expectations.

"Nicole's future contributions to medical science and her community service to improving encounters between LGBTQ people and the medical system are both going to make a mark nationally and internationally," said Liz Constable, associate professor for Women and Gender Studies.

Study abroad and undergraduate research

As an undergraduate, Sitkin participated in Integrated Studies, an invitational honors program, and, like a growing number of science majors, studied abroad. Fluent in French, she spent her junior year at the University of Bordeaux, where she took science and political science classes in French and earned a UC Davis minor in art studio.

During her time at Davis, she worked in the research labs of faculty members and conducted independent research — including one project that made living art from fungi — interned at medical facilities, shadowed physicians, published in the campus literary magazine, played rugby with the women's club team and served as a tutor for individuals learning English as another language.

Sitkin said she dedicates herself to whatever she does and works hard. "It's the price you pay," she said, "but you get to do something amazing with your life."

UC Davis will hold its 11 remaining spring commencements through June 16. The university estimates that it will confer about 8,810 degrees — including 6,940 bachelor’s degrees and 1,870 advanced degrees — for the 2012-13 academic year.

The University Medalist website celebrates the stories of recipients since 1965.

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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