University of Nebraska Medical Center

2022 Student Senate Awards

Each year the UNMC Student Senate honors and recognizes students, teachers, and mentors who have gone above and beyond in their contributions to the med center community. Below you can read the nominations that were submitted for this year's award recipients.

2022 Student Senate Award Recipients

Lauren Wegner

College of Medicine Student Impact Award

Lauren Wegner

"Lauren is one of those unique human beings who thrives working hard and caring for all of those around her. She works to stay connected to all her peers from UNMC and her previous degrees and mentors. She takes on projects serving all the communities she takes ownership in. She immediately jumped back into the Omaha community when she returned at the start of school to help with relief packages during the pandemic by kicking off the grass roots foundation MUNA box all while completing her other research with her mentors at Stanford. Her dedication to the many activities she is involved in is inspiring. Yet she manages to balance it beautifully with her grades and caring for all of the people closest to her. I am lucky to have met her and work alongside such an amazing woman."


Claire Nissen

College of Public Health Student Impact Award

Claire Nissen

"Claire Nissen is a current MPH student whose concentration is Maternal and Child Health in the Department of Health Promotion. In addition to her coursework, service learning, and Capstone project required of all MPH students, Claire has gone beyond the call of duty and made a significant impact in laboratory research. In spite of the limitations imposed by COVID-19, Claire has been a fixture in the laboratory where she has made important new discoveries concerning our innate lung defense against SARS-CoV-2 during this, a critical time in Public Health. Her research this year has resulted in two recently submitted manuscripts that I expect to be published very soon. She is First Author on one of these projects:

1. Nissen, C. G., K. Saavedra, J. M. DeVasure, D. M. Katafiasz, K. L. Bailey, and T. A. Wyatt. Malondialdehyde-acetaldehyde (MAA) adduction decreases surfactant protein D anti-microbial action, Frontiers Immunol, 2022.

2. Ochoa, C. A., C. G. Nissen, D. D. Mosley, C. D. Bauer, D. Jordan, K. L. Bailey, and T. A. Wyatt. Aldehyde trapping protects airway epithelial cells from cigarette smoke and alcohol-induced injury, Biomolecules, 2022.

In addition, Claire presented her research at a national meeting, the Research Society on Alcoholism, in June of 2021: Nissen, C. G., et al. Malondialdehyde acetaldehyde-adduction changes surfactant protein D structure and function. Alcoholism: Clin Exp Res, 45:219A, #620, 2021.

Essentially, Claire has demonstrated that reactive aldehydes derived from cigarette smoking and alcohol misuse alter the structure, and thus the function, of the primary lung defensin surfactant that protects us from SARS-CoV-2 binding to our airway cells. This fundamental observation provides a mechanism for the increased COVID infection and poor outcomes documented by epidemiologists in those who smoke and drink. Such data can be used to justify our translational Public Health efforts toward disease prevention by alcohol reduction and smoking cessation.

Claire has made an impact on our research because of her tireless effort, her inquisitive and curious nature, and her tenacity at problem-solving. During this time when so many have been forced to isolate and work from home, Claire has chosen to direct her time outside of the required MPH curriculum to address the fundamental mechanisms of innate protection against coronavirus and how environmental exposures can compromise our native lung prevention against COVID-19.

I strongly urge you to recognize Claire Nissen in the College of Public Health for her outstanding impact on the UNMC Mission during this unparalleled and critical time in our community. Do not hesitate to contact me should you require additional information."

Todd A. Wyatt, PhD
Professor and Interim Chair
Department of Environmental, Agricultural & Occupational Health
College of Public Health


Sydney Armstrong

College of Dentistry Student Impact Award

Sydney Armstrong

"Sydney is a Wayne State College graduate and Rural Health Opportunities Program alumni. She is an enthusiastic individual who is willing to go the distance for patients and her colleagues. Faculty often use Sydney as an example when referring to patient management and preparedness. Many of us come to her for help because she provides a sense of genuine welcome and concern for every patient through her vibrant smile, unquestionable knowledge, and personable demeanor. Sydney works hard at her craft, which is demonstrated by her clinical skills. Her ability to explain procedures to patients, peers, and faculty always amazes me. During the pandemic, ZOOM school was at large and Sydney was never afraid to volunteer to speak or present, which was greatly appreciated by her classmates. She believes that we all have the responsibility to care for each other. When I asked her why she wanted to become a dentist, she replied, “I like to help people with their health and confidence with an enhanced smile.” I thought it was a fairly generic answer at the time, however, as I continue to observe her care for patients, her actions truly embody that statement.

Sydney doesn't proclaim herself as a leader but her actions speak volumes. For example, the last clinic day before Thanksgiving, she was finishing her morning appointment when one of her patients reached out to her who was in great pain. No one at the school could see him until after Thanksgiving for an emergency appointment and time was running out for the allotted morning appointment hours. Instead of sticking with the status quo, she spoke with ten different people to allow that patient to come in that morning for what turned out to be an emergency root canal. She went above and beyond to give this patient treatment. This is just one of many examples where she went above and beyond her call of duty to care for a patient. Her compassion and hard work is apparent as her patients' eyes light up when we talk about Sydney and how enriching she made their lives, how comfortable she made them feel, and what a good dentist she will be.

With the little time she has outside of the clinic, she is working towards building a program between the AAWD and Girls Inc. (A nonprofit organization based in Omaha that aids girls 5-18 years old with health, educational, and enrichment needs) to bring girls who have a desire for a future in the dental field to the College of Dentistry for a day to show them a day in the life of a dentist and the steps it takes to get there. Additionally, she is continuing to focus on bringing quality health care professionals back to rural Nebraska by being involved with her community in Grand Island. Sydney has been a model student both academically and in her community, and in the future she wants to continue to provide insight to prospective high school students interested in the RHOP in addition to UNMC in her hometown and beyond. Sydney has exemplified all exceptional qualities that would not only make a competent dentist, but a great leader and even a greater person/friend."


Shailendra Selvaraj

College of Pharmacy Student Impact Award

Shailendra Selvaraj

"My name is Shailendra Selvaraj, and I am a fourth-year student in the College of Pharmacy. I am nominating myself for the Student Impact Award. I believe I have met and exceeded the qualities as a key leader in the College of Pharmacy. I am honored to be a part of this exceptional program and I am excited to have been able to give back to my institution.

During the coronavirus pandemic, regulations, restrictions, and limitations were ubiquitous. All philanthropic and outreach programs were suspended due to the risk of coronavirus transmission. Through the collaboration with my executive teams and dedication to my profession, I demonstrated productivity to UNMC with a focus on community service that would be considered above and beyond the call of duty. My projects, Project Rural Outreach Patient Education (ROPE) and the Omaha Hand Sanitizer Organization (OHSO) positively impacted the Omaha community and represented our institution to its highest caliber.

The Omaha Hand Sanitizer Organization compounded hand sanitizer for the sale and donation to individuals and organizations that did not have access to the resource during the pandemic. Donations were primarily given to animal shelters, domestic abuse homes, and homeless shelters. We created efficient, self-sustaining procedures to continually produce and deliver hand sanitizer products in a timely manner. I developed collaboration expertise with team members, suppliers, and business contacts. Through this program, time and purchase demands were consistently met while supplying over 100 gallons of hand sanitizer to businesses in the Omaha metro area. This program allowed me to utilize my academic resources, leadership skills, and collaborative efforts to deliver a necessary resource during a time of critical need.

Project ROPE was founded through the Kappa Psi Pharmaceutical Fraternity and utilized the Zoom virtual platform to deliver medically accurate presentations tailored for different audiences. Our program reached several elementary and middle school classrooms to leave positive lasting impressions on students and teachers alike. This was a unique experience that leveraged the obstacles from the coronavirus pandemic to provide philanthropic opportunities for Kappa Psi members and educative presentations for our younger generations.

I am ecstatic to be applying for the UNMC Student Senate Student Impact Award. The College of Pharmacy has positively impacted my future and I am privileged to continue that impact to my patients and community. Thank you for your consideration for this incredible award."


Cole White

College of Nursing Student Impact Award

Cole White

"Cole White is an exemplary student. He is a leader in our class who strives to serve and support others. Nursing is his passion, and he displays that in his professional demeanor both in the classroom and in clinical. His interactions with patients are therapeutic and friendly. Academically, Cole is determined to do whatever it takes to succeed, and his drive motivates other students to do the same. He is always aiming to understand and master all necessary skills. His work ethic is impressive, to say the least. The time he puts into studying and understanding course material shows his dedication to the program and his education. Cole has a bright future ahead, as he puts so much work into furthering his education and career. He is always searching for innovation and new knowledge as he adapts to provide the best patient care. Cole White displays all nursing characteristics of empathy, determination, and adaptability, making him a role model to his peers."


Rodrigo Banda

College of Allied Health Professions Student Impact Award

Rodrigo Banda

"Has been welcoming and interactive with multiple colleges. He was willing to help mentor, ask questions and bring a sense of togetherness. Amazing student and man."







Natalie Sturd

Graduate Studies Student Impact Award

Natalie Sturd

"I am writing to nominate Ms. Natalie Sturd for the Student Senate Outstanding Graduate Student Award. Natalie is a student in the UNMD MD-PhD Scholars Program, and she is pursuing her graduate studies in the department of Immunology, Pathology, and Infectious Disease. In this capacity, I have had the opportunity to work with Natalie as a peer and as a mentor for the past 4 years, and watch her grow in our program. Natalie demonstrates the qualities of leadership and community outreach through many of her activities, and she is highly involved within the UNMC community.

Natalie has been on the UNMC campus in some capacity since 2016, when she completed the Summer Undergraduate Research Program. She has been an advocate for increasing participation in that program, and is outspoken about how much it influenced her opinion to come to UNMC for the MD-PhD Scholars Program. Since becoming a graduate student, Natalie has taken on leadership responsibilities including a Graduate Student Committee Member for the Immunology, Pathology, and Infectious Disease department, a student interviewer for the MD-PhD program, and the Co-Chair of the local Midwest Student Biomedical Research Forum. In addition to her leadership, Natalie has been successful during her graduate studies, presenting three research presentations, locally and nationally.

In addition to her spectacular CV, Natalie is a genuinely kind woman, who cares for the professional development of others. She serves as a mentor for the ONRAP High School Mentoring Program and makes an effort to reach out to all the MD-PhD students, learn about their interests, and connect them with other peers within the program.

Finally, Natalie will leave a lasting impact on the university via the Podcast she founded in her graduate department, to both increase visibility of projects and tell stories from the department. This podcast helps to give future students information about the work being done on campus, and help them identify potential mentors! A truly incredible resource Natalie has helped to create.

I strongly support Natalie for this award as she exemplifies what it means to be an outstanding graduate student, and is actively making positive impacts on our campus and beyond.

Thank you for your consideration,

Laura E Flores."


Dr. Elizabeth Wellsandt

Distinguished Mentor Award

Dr. Elizabeth Wellsandt

"It is with sincere pleasure that I recommend Elizabeth Wellsandt PT, DPT, PhD, OCS for the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) Student Senate Distinguished Mentor Award. Dr. Wellsandt serves as the chair of my supervisory committee and mentor as I undergo PhD training at UNMC. I began my PhD training at UNMC in January 2021, specifically to work with Dr. Wellsandt due to the reputation she has built for herself in physical therapy research and education. In the year since I started, Dr. Wellsandt has demonstrated all the qualities of a successful mentor and deserves recognition for her efforts.

Dr. Wellsandt carefully guides her students while providing an example of how to be an excellent clinician scientist. She encourages the students she mentors to seek opportunities outside their comfort zone to challenge and develop new skillsets and knowledge. For instance, she recommended me to be first author on a clinical commentary article which she serves as senior author on and has used the experience to improve my communication, writing, and literature review process. Not only does Dr. Wellsandt recommend her students look for opportunities for growth, but she does for herself as well. In the last year, Dr. Wellsandt has taken a grant writing workshop, attended webinars to better understand study design, and invited me to attend a meeting with a qualitative researcher to learn about a line of research methodology that neither of us had experience in. She also makes sure to celebrate victories with her students, even scheduling Zoom meetings when unable to meet in person. These efforts ensure that we feel valued and recognized. The combination of Dr. Wellsandt’s encouragement and the example she sets truly inspires her students to strive to become the best scientists they can be.

Dr. Wellsandt has sincerely pushed me to better my writing, research skills, and leadership. She has scheduled time to watch webinars on clinical trials with me so that we can discuss the information both during and after the webinar. She also blocked long periods of time to guide my grant writing, helping me develop a strong application that was ultimately funded. To drive my leadership, she is helping me lead a smaller research project where I will have the opportunity to lead team meetings. All of her recommendations take into consideration my goals of working for a university. For instance, she recommended that I take an opportunity to guest lecture because the student evaluations from the guest lecture will provide strong support for my future application to work at a university.

On a more personal note, Dr. Wellsandt has gone above and beyond to support me and my family as we transitioned to Omaha. I moved from Cincinnati, Ohio to Omaha in January of 2021 with my wife and our two young children with very few personal connections, and Dr. Wellsandt has made sure that we always feel like we have a support system. While this does not directly relate to my development as a researcher and educator, I can safely say that without her support, my training would be much more difficult, and I would not be able to perform at the same level as I am now.

While Dr. Wellsandt is still building her reputation for being a strong researcher, she has shown clear efforts to be an excellent mentor. She has led by example and created an environment where all her students feel empowered and supported. She is the model for the quality of mentorship that I strive to provide when I am in a position to mentor students, and I hope to recognize her for these efforts.


Dave Werner PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS."


Dr. Joseph Siu

Distinguished Mentor Award

Dr. Joseph Siu

Nomination 1

"It is with great pleasure that I am writing this letter to nominate my advisor, Joseph Siu, PhD, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Education and Graduate Studies, for the Distinguished Mentor Award. He is an excellent mentor and an extraordinary role model to me.

This is my last year at UNMC, and it’s also the fourth year I nominate Dr. Siu with my peers. As my graduate committee chair, Dr. Siu has shown great concern and attention to my academic progress. He has been giving me valuable instructions and direct mentorship through our weekly meetings. In the first year, to facilitate our learning journey as international students, Dr. Siu asked us to write a weekly report, which includes our coursework, assigned project and other things in our lives for this week and the plan for the next week. He would read through it and provided his feedback and suggestions to the content we reported. After each semester, he holds an end of semester meeting with us and discusses the overall academic progress and plans. Dr. Siu works tirelessly with us and he is always approachable. As a global director of the division, Dr. Siu has a tight working schedule, but he is never reluctant to have additional meetings with us. Whenever we have some issues in our study or personal life, we would seek help from him and every time the kind suggestions and guidance from him always benefit us a lot.

Dr. Siu emphasized individualized mentorship and developed a special and close relationship with each student. He always takes into consideration of my research interest, my career development plan, and provides effective tailored instructions to me. He also encouraged us to extend our research network by providing international collaboration pathways and introducing us to other research teams. I appreciate the opportunities Dr. Siu provided me to participate in the annual conference of the department of biomechanics at UNO, submit the research abstract to the International Space Station conference, and take part in the World Physiotherapy Congress conference. These are just a few examples. Dr. Siu is keen on identifying academic connections and initiating new projects. Being involved in a variety of projects, my research capability has been sharped through his training to me during these years. Dr. Siu always encourages us to think big and beyond our current project and develop a holistic view to get a deep understanding of the research field.

I’m grateful to have Dr. Siu as my advisor throughout my learning journey at UNMC. Every year my academic progress is visible, and I feel more confident and promising regarding my future endeavor. I support Dr. Siu’s nomination with great enthusiasm and no reservations.


Jie Hao
Graduate student
MSIA: Patient-Oriented Research program."

Nomination 2

"My name is Zixuan Yao. I am currently a master student from MSIA-Patient Oriented Research graduate program. I would like to nominate my advisor, Dr. Ka-Chun Siu, for the Distinguished Mentor Award.

Dr. Siu became my mentor since last year, he always gave me great support in both work and life. During our first meeting, I was impressed by Dr. Siu's professional knowledge and creative thinking. Since then, whenever I talk with him, I always get new ideas. He is willing to spend a lot of time communicating with students. Once he and I had meeting 4 times a week in order to find the best plan for my research method. Although the result may be simple, I have learned a lot in the process, this has greatly improved my critical thinking abilities. What's more, in order to help us have a better plan for the future, he organized us to communicate with senior students and graduating students outside of work. I received a lot of inspiration during that activity.

Also, he is also very concerned about the mental health of the students and keep thinking what is best for his students. As an international student, I was really nervous when I first came America, Dr. Siu helped me and my classmates a lot and took care of us. He invited us to his house in thanksgiving and charismas to celebrate the holiday and get rid of homesick. During the global pandemic, he repeatedly offered care about me and my family and provided me with psychological support.

Overall, I think Dr. Siu deserve the distinguished award as a great mentor. I will be appreciated if you consider him as a candidate. Thank you."

Nomination 3

"I am very pleased to recommend Dr. Joseph (Ka-Chun) Siu for the UNMC Student Senate Distinguished Mentor Award.

This is the third year I studied at UNMC, and I have known Dr. Siu for almost five years. I was impressed by his extraordinary commitment to the global development of physical therapy. And I was also encouraged to begin a brand new study trip.

After I came to UNMC, I faced some local problems that I had never met in China. It was Dr. Siu that helped me to acculturate to the different culture and gave useful suggestions. Not only in our lives, but Dr. Siu also expends great effort into our education. In 2020, I chose him as the chair of my committee. He took my advice seriously and communicated with his colleagues about my study design to find other committee members who are interested in my plan. I appreciated his help so that I can find the most appropriate and professional experts to help me finish the study. After I started the project, we have taken the weekly meeting for almost one and a half of the year. Besides, Dr. Siu always cared about our physical and mental health and encouraged us. I had fever last year and he helped me a lot. I really appreciated his help and I think I benefited tremendously from his mentoring.

It is with great pleasure that I enthusiastically offer my highest recommendation to Dr. Siu again for the UNMC Student Senate Distinguished Mentor Award. The award would be of great honor to this outstanding teacher. I am certain that he will continue to be a distinguished and exceptional mentor and will continue to promote the global development of physical therapy.

Dongqi Zhu, Graduate Student."


Emily Coffey

Distinguished Teacher Award

Emily Coffey

"She has always been a great help in nursing school. She find the balance between treating us as nurses and nursing students giving us confidence to do our tasks, because we know she taught us all we need.Her PCC class was always very well done and my favorite class to go to because it truly felt like I was learning in a way that would teach me how to be an amazing nurse and prepare me for the future. Over all she is an amazing teacher and deserve some recognition for all she done for us!!

She made learning active and real life situations, really helped me transition into the different style of urging school.

From the start of the fall semester, Emily has been clear and cut with her expectations. She has held such high expectations because she knows that we are capable of anything that we set our mind to; plus we made it this far in our education! She provided us examples from when she started working as a nurse to make us at ease that it's ok to make a mistake.  But ultimately at the end of it all, we have to learn from it and put our best foot forward. She made sure that no one has confused with topics or exemplars and made the time to talk things out. With her background, she is able to teach topics that's easy to understand, with specific details that we need to know. Even though the early morning lectures are never easy, she made it enjoyable through team building activities. She showed us the importance of working together to create a positive outcome for our future patients.

Emily Coffey deserves the Distinguished Teacher Award because of her kindness and understanding towards students. She treats her students as adults and understands that life can get in the way sometimes. She understood that nursing school is extremely tiring mentally and emotionally. She was always there to cheer us on throughout the semester in her class and others. I truly enjoyed Patient-Centered Care I with her and can't wait to have more classes with her in the future!

Emily Coffey is the embodiment of what it means to be a nurse. She is kind, caring, and understanding. It is obvious how much she cares about all her students and patients based on her professionalism and ethical standards. Ms. Coffey shows her dedication to student success by her approachability and willingness to take the time to serve students. Her office is always open for students seeking clarification of class materials, or perhaps just those needing someone to talk to. She is supportive in every way and understanding of the challenges we all face. Her teaching is beyond helpful, and she makes her expectations clear without overwhelming students. Ms. Coffey’s instruction involves multiple methods that are suited to a variety of learning styles, combining hands-on activity with visual aid and auditory lecture recordings. By establishing grounds of mutual respect, Ms. Coffey allows her students to feel challenged by her material, and she pushes them to succeed, but never overwhelms them. She is genuinely invested in each individual student’s success. This provides positive learning experiences for all students. Ms. Coffey is a role model, example, and demonstration of nursing in its compassion, humility, and integrity."


Barbara Nickel

Distinguished Teacher Award

Barbara Nickel

"Barb’s determination to help us learn this semester has been unbelievable. At the beginning of the semester, we realized that our PCC 3 tutor from Omaha would not be helpful due to the fact they are covering different material than what we are in class. Barb took the initiative to set up zoom sessions where we could bring questions to get help prior to the tests. She has also gone above and beyond by identifying pharmacology as a weakness of my class and implementing more pharm into her lesson plans. Barb is able to bring real world scenarios into our sims to help make us more successful and comfortable in the hospital setting. She encourages questions during class and has yet to make anyone feel like their question is invalid.

It is very apparent that Barb’s main focus is to help us succeed in her class and as nurses. Although she has a very busy schedule, she always makes time for individual meetings and to answer questions. Barb has made it clear that if we ever have a question, we are always more than welcome to call her, even after we graduate. She is very approachable and continues to go out of her way to help us get the best education possible!"