The award recognizes “exceptional commitment to cultural diversity in medicine,” and honors an “individual or representative of an organization who has demonstrated exceptional commitment to cultural diversity in medicine or to improving minority health,” according to the SGIM.
“I am honored and humbled to be selected for this award but am also filled with a renewed energy to work harder to achieve both diversity and equity in medicine,” said Vela, who is also an associate professor of medicine. “I feel so fortunate to work with incredible faculty, trainees and students at an institution that supports these missions.”
The award is named in memory and honor of the late Dr. Herbert W. Nickens, former Director of the Office of Minority Health, Department of Health and Human Services and the first Vice President and Director of the American Association of Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) Division of Community and Minority Programs.
Vela, who has chaired the SGIM’s National Health Disparities Education Subcommittee and has widely shared her innovative approaches through scholarship and presentations, is one of Pritzker’s most ardent supporters of minority medical students.
“It remains the personal connection between student and teacher that is at the heart of medical education and which will always be the most powerful strategy in broadening the diversity of the physician population,” said Dr. Holly J. Humphrey, dean for medical education. “Dr. Vela’s ability to foster such connections is unparalleled.”
Vela’s work in encouraging and inspiring diversity in medicine encompasses multiple facets of medical education, as well as learners across the continuum.
One of her most noteworthy accomplishments has been the development of the Health Care Disparities: Equity and Advocacy course. This is a unique experiential program that all first-year Pritzker students attend during the summer quarter to help further their understanding of the disparities that many populations experience in health outcomes or health care access.
Past participants in the course have developed remarkable initiatives, such as Mission Nutrition and the Pritzker Mammography Access Partnership, making a tremendous impact on the local community.
The course has bolstered the Pritzker School of Medicine’s stature as a national model for teaching about the impact of health care disparities, and many students cite the class as positively influencing their decision to attend Pritzker.
A 2012 qualitative study, entitled “The Minority Student Voice at One Medical School: Lessons for All?” revealed that the course contributes to a cultural climate supportive of minority medical students, putting Pritzker ahead of many of its peers in attracting, and graduating, underrepresented minority students.
Vela was listed as an expert in diversity in medicine in a recent U.S. Supreme Court writ.
In addition to her teaching and mentoring activities related to medical students, Vela has also made meaningful contributions to the development of minority high school students interested in science and medicine through her oversight of Pritzker’s pipeline programs.
The Chicago Academic Medicine Program (CAMP) II is an eight-week commuter program where students learn to conduct primary research in a laboratory with a University of Chicago faculty mentor, in turn gaining a fundamental understanding of the ethics of research, the basics of biostatistics, and the conduct of biomedical research.