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Upstate student is one of only 57 to receive U.S. Public Health service excellence award

SYRACUSE, N.Y.-- Upstate Medical University student Nicole Cifra’s passion for adolescent medicine has earned her a 2015 United States Public Health Service Excellence in Public Health Award.

Cifra is the daughter of Nicolas and Carolyn Cifra of Fayetteville, N.Y.

Cifra 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,” said Cifra. “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,” said Cifra.

Misconceptions abound.

“A good number of sufferers are males, more than you’d think,” said Cifra. “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,” said Cifra. “The mind plays tricks on you. It’s similar to alcoholism and its ‘repeated use, despite harm.’ It’s a scary illness.”

Cifra’s passion for public health has gotten her involved at the national and international levels, as well as in the local community.

Attending the Academy of Eating Disorders conference in Boston, April 23 to 25, Cifra is on an international task force with people from the Netherlands, Japan, Australia and other countries.

In Syracuse, Cifra 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 Cifra 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,” said Cifra. “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, Cifra credits Karen Teelin, M.D., director of adolescent medicine, and Associate Dean Jennifer Christner, M.D., for mentoring and guiding her.

“When I found out Dr. Christner was an adolescent medicine doctor, she got stuck with me forever,” said Cifra. “I went to an adolescent medicine conference with her last year in Austin, and met people in the field.”

Cifra 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.

Cifra said she’s grateful that Dean of Student Affairs Julie White, Ph.D., nominated her for the U.S. Public Health Service excellence award.

“A lot of public health initiatives focus on nutrition, obesity prevention and exercise,” said Cifra. “Eating disorders get forgotten. Adolescence is important. A lot of habits are formed in that time.”

Caption: Nicole Cifra, College of Medicine Class of 2016, was selected for a U.S. Public Health Service Excellence Award.