Health professions students win Schermerhorn scholarships

By Kristen Holland Shear

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Three UT Southwestern School of Health Professions students have been named winners of the 2009 Schermerhorn Scholarship Award for their academic excellence, leadership and volunteer work.

Jessica Coffee of clinical nutrition, Jackie Gerber of prosthetics-orthotics and Tracy Wright of physician assistant studies received the award recently during a recognition luncheon.

Debra Cason, associate professor of health care sciences and chairman of the scholarship committee, said the committee had very difficult choices to make this year.

“All the applicants had excellent academic and service histories, so the ones who were selected are truly outstanding in their service to their profession and community,” she said.

The award has been given annually for 22 years and is named for Dr. John Schermerhorn, who died last July in Dallas at the age of 87. Dr. Schermerhorn served as the allied health dean from 1971 to 1986.

Each year, three outstanding health professions students receive the award. Each student receives $500 and flowers, and has his or her name added to a plaque of past award winners; there have been 66 recipients since the awards were first given in 1988.

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Lois Schermerhorn, widow of Dr. John Schermerhorn, presents the annual award in the family's name to the 2009 recipients, Jackie Gerber (third from right), Tracy Wright and Jessica Coffee. Joining in the presentation are Dr. Raul Caetano (left), dean of the UT Southwestern School of Health Professions, and Elliott and Dr. James Schermerhorn, grandson and son of the presenter.

Jessica Coffee

During her eight years as a flight attendant for American Airlines, Ms. Coffee became intimately familiar with the extent of the childhood obesity epidemic. So familiar, in fact, that she vowed to do something about it.

“I have always enjoyed working with children, and envisioning the lifelong detrimental effects of obesity beginning at such a young age made me incensed and impassioned to work toward making a difference in any way that I could,” said Ms. Coffee, 32.

Two years after trading in her wings for a biochemistry textbook, the Fort Worth native is preparing to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in clinical dietetics and is on the hunt for a job that will enable her to use her clinical skills while working to prevent childhood obesity.

“In the meantime, I’m eager to get back to volunteering with Operation Frontline and teaching the basics of good nutrition to low-income families,” she said.

Bernadette Latson, assistant professor of clinical nutrition and director of the coordinated program in clinical dietetics, said Ms. Coffee brings a unique perspective to health care.

“One of her stated goals is to work in policy development to improve children’s health,” Ms. Latson said. “Her varied background and thoughtful approach will bring an invaluable synergy to her health profession clinical practice.”

Ms. Coffee credited her mother with her desire to give back.

“She is continually giving her time and attention to those in need,” Ms. Coffee said. “Like her, I find the joy and satisfaction service brings are unmet by any other type of work.”

Jackie Gerber

Twenty-seven may seem awfully young to be embarking upon a second career, but that’s exactly what Jackie Gerber is doing.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biomedical and mechanical engineering, the prosthetics-orthotics student spent a few years working as an engineer but decided that “it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for in a career.”

Ms. Gerber said she pursued engineering because she was inspired by a biomedical engineer she was able to shadow at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas. He helped design and build a golfing prosthesis for a child, she said.

When the time came to consider changing professions, she simply returned to her original inspiration and began investigating prosthetics as a career option.

“The unique thing about this field is that no patient or problem is the same. Each patient brings their own story and challenge,” she said. “I am also impressed by the new technology impacting the field.”

Susan Kapp, associate professor of health care sciences and director of the prosthetics-orthotics program, said, “Jackie’s passion for community and professional service, combined with her academic achievements, will make her an excellent health care provider.”

Ms. Gerber, who plans to graduate in May 2010, said she hopes to eventually open her own practice where she can focus on both research and service to the community.

“My goal is to improve prosthetic materials and designs to provide better and more affordable options for amputees,” she said. “I also hope to make service trips to help those less fortunate both nationally and internationally.”

Tracy Wright

Medicine has been in Tracy Wright’s future for as long as she can remember.

The 22-year-old planned to become a doctor and admittedly hadn’t given much thought to any other health care careers until a college internship with a physician and nurse practitioner exposed her to other options.

“The experience changed my perceptions of both doctors and other health care providers,” Ms. Wright said. “I began to realize that there are providers other than doctors who treat and care for patients.”

A year later, as a sophomore at Austin College, she started looking into what it would take to become a physician assistant.

“I started learning about physician assistants when one of my friends was accepted to PA school,” she said. “The more I learn about the career, the more I think it is perfect for me.”

Dr. Eugene Jones, chairman of physician assistant studies, said Ms. Wright is top notch in every way.

“Her positive attitude and work ethic are admired by everyone she interacts with, and this was validated by her being elected president of her PA class,” he said.

Ms. Wright, who plans to graduate in December 2010 with a master of physician assistant studies, said she loves the flexibility the field offers.

“What other career can I go from practicing in the emergency room of a busy city hospital to being the primary health care provider in a rural community?” Ms. Wright said. “This career allows me to serve others by providing them with quality medical care.”

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