Upstate medical student Nicole Cifra’s passion for adolescent medicine has earned her a 2015 United States Public Health Service Excellence in Public Health Award.
Nicole is on track for a dual MD-MPH degree in 2016. She is one of only 57 medical students nationwide to earn the USPHS award that recognizes a commitment to public health leadership.
“Many of the challenges adolescents face are deeply rooted in public health, which I didn’t have an appreciation for prior to the public health curriculum,” Nicole said. “In particular, I narrowed in on the field of eating disorders.”
Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are classified as mental illnesses by the American Psychiatric Association and can be fatal, Nicole said.
“A good number of sufferers are males, more than you’d think,” Nicole said. “It’s not just adolescent females. (It affects) people in mid-life, from all races, genders and socio-economic levels.”
Eating disorders represent a severe distortion of body image and an inability to make changes, Nicole said. “The mind plays tricks on you. It’s similar to alcoholism and its ‘repeated use, despite harm.’ It’s a scary illness.”
Nicole’s passion for public health has gotten her involved at the national and international levels, as well as in the local community.
Next week she’ll attend the Academy of Eating Disorders conference in Boston. She’s on an international task force with people from the Netherlands, Japan, Australia and other countries.
In Syracuse, Nicole serves on the board of Ophelia’s Place, a not-for-profit that provides support for individuals and families dealing with eating disorders. She periodically leads support groups there, and advocates for the organization in the community.
When Nicole was preparing for her boards at the end of her second year at Upstate, she spent a lot of time studying in Café at 407, a Liverpool coffee shop affiliated with Ophelia’s Place.
“It just had this affirming atmosphere, and I was there so much that the director at the time introduced herself and bought me lunch,” Nicole said. “During my MPH year I started volunteering there because I had more time and less stress. … It’s wonderful to get involved and use my skill set to help people.”
At Upstate, Nicole credits Karen Teelin, MD, director of adolescent medicine, and Associate Dean Jennifer Christner, MD, for mentoring and guiding her.
“When I found out Dr. Christner was an adolescent medicine doctor, she got stuck with me forever,” Nicole said. “I went to an adolescent medicine conference with her last year in Austin, and met people in the field.”
Nicole is finishing up her final third-year clerkship – pediatrics, “and I absolutely love it” – and looks forward to a rewarding final year at Upstate.
She plans on taking “away electives” in adolescent medicine in Rochester and Austin, as well as working on her capstone project for the MPH degree. After that, she’s hoping for a residency in pediatrics, followed by a three-year fellowship in adolescent medicine.
Nicole said she’s grateful that Dean of Student Affairs Julie White, PhD, nominated her for the U.S. Public Health Service excellence award.
“A lot of public health initiatives focus on nutrition, obesity prevention and exercise,” Nicole said. “Eating disorders get forgotten. Adolescence is important. A lot of habits are formed in that time.”