University of Nebraska Medical Center

Current Award Recipients

Distinguished Alumnus Award

Wael ElRayes Photo

Wael ElRayes, MBBCh, PhD'17, MS'20, FACHE

A native Egyptian, Wael ElRayes graduated from Kasr Al-Aini Faculty of Medicine, Cairo University, the oldest medical school in Africa and the Middle East. He then joined the Police Academy, where he graduated as an officer physician with the Ministry of Interior and served until he achieved the rank of Major. After that, Dr. ElRayes joined the Ministry of Health and Population, where he served in different roles, including the Assistant Under Secretary for the Specialized Medical Centers (SMC), the Central Coordinator for the Health Sector Reform Project (HSRP), the Deputy Director and Technical Coordinator for the National Health Insurance Project and the Family Health Fund. Afterward, he joined a multinational company as the Projects Manager for Healthcare facilities in Egypt and Sudan.

Dr. ElRayes currently serves on the faculty at the Department of Health Services Administration and Policy and as the Co-Director of the Center for Global Health and Development (CGHD) at the UNMC College of Public Health. Although Dr. ElRayes focuses on addressing global health security and refugees' and internally displaced persons' (IDP)s' health through establishing strategic partnerships with governments, ministries, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations, he is involved in critical US health security initiatives.

As the Project Manager for the Training, Simulation & Quarantine Center (TSQC), he played a leading role in the establishment of the first National Quarantine Unit (NQU) and the first National Biocontainment Training Center in the U.S. Both facilities were why UNMC received the U.S. citizens repatriated from China and Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic and were instrumental in boosting UNMC's national and global reputation.

Dr. ElRayes orchestrates strategic partnerships with several entities in the Middle East North Africa region (MENA) and South Asia regions, including the Governments of Bangladesh and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), several universities in Jordan, Egypt, and the KRG, and non-profit organizations in Egypt and Bangladesh. These partnerships include national-level programs in organ transplant, cancer, vaccine research and development, and health security. Dr. ElRayes leads several biopreparedness projects in the MENA region and remains the first and only UNMC PI funded by the Bureau of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) at the U.S. Department of State to address the significant gaps in health security domains in the MENA Region.

Dr. ElRayes has a particular focus on the 2.4 million Rohingya and Syrian refugees and Iraqi IDPs. He has successfully established several multinational interdisciplinary teams that address several issues within these populations, including mental health, malnutrition, maternal and child care, and renal diseases and cancer, areas usually ignored in these populations.

Dr. ElRayes is the founder of the Nebraska Fulbright Chapter and is the immediate past President of the Board of Directors. He also serves as the UNMC's Fulbright Scholar Liaison, where he works on promoting international education opportunities and fostering educational efforts.

Dr. ElRayes holds several professional and academic degrees that cover surgery and medicine, healthcare and hospital management, human resources management, global hospital hygiene, health services research, administration & policy, and emergency preparedness.

Early Career Achievement Award

headshot of Leah

Leah Swanson, MPH'17, MA, RRT

Leah Swanson started her career as a respiratory therapist in Omaha hospitals.  She loved direct patient care, but wanted to affected greater impact on whole community health - leading her to public health.  Leah completed her Masters in Public Health in May 2017 and her Masters of Arts in Social Gerontology later that year.

She started in the public health field as the Medical Reserve Corps Coordinator for the Eastern Nebraska/Western Iowa unit, assisting the region through the destructive floods of 2019.  Later that year, she moved to Oregon to enjoy a new adventure, and started work at Planned Parenthood, advocating for reproductive health and education for her community.  When COVID-19 emerged, she went to work for her county local public health department as the Emergency Preparedness Coordinator in December 2020.  She hit the ground running there, acting as incident commander for the county’s mass vaccination sites as well as the COVID Outbreak lead.  She continues to love her position with the local health department, working on initiatives like street medicine and more efficient response to disasters in her area.  She feels honored to work in public health and proud of what the field accomplishes for the health of all people.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Award

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Kate Grafel, MPH'18

Kate is a 2018 graduate of UNMC's Master of Public Health program, where she focused on biostatistics. She also holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from UNL. Kate is a leader in workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. She served as president of Fearlessly You @ Blue, the LGBTQ+ employee resource group at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska. In that role, she designed an interactive workshop exploring identity, which she is now developing into a continuing education course for healthcare professionals. She is highly involved in community and professional organizations, having served as a leader in her neighborhood association, in Phi Delta Chi pharmacy fraternity, and in the Nebraska Chapter of the American Statistical Association. Kate lives in Omaha and is the Director of Pharmacy Benefit Management Analytics and Reporting for Amwins Rx.