Joint Medical Program student wins prestigious U.S. Public Health Service Award


June 7, 2018

UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program (JMP) student Tara Benesch received a 2018 U.S. Public Health Service Excellence in Public Health Award in recognition of her commitment and sustained dedication to improving health care in underserved communities.

Since joining the JMP in 2014 as part of the Program in Medical Education for the Urban Underserved (PRIME-US), Benesch has already had a tremendous impact on the health of vulnerable populations. She worked with the Berkeley Food Institute to evaluate the impact of the City of Berkeley’s Soda Tax (Measure D) on low-income families. She also developed training for healthcare providers through the UC Berkeley Suitcase Clinic and Berkeley Free Clinic and volunteers for working with transgender patients and helped establish Students Towards Racial justice, Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity (STRIDE).

Still, the fourth-year medical student says she is just scratching the surface.

“I don’t see myself being tied to a particular health issue, but rather committed to responding to the needs of the local community,” Benesch said. “As part of that commitment, I plan to ensure that our healthcare workforce is as diverse as the communities we serve.”

The national service award is given to medical students who are public health champions advancing the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) mission to “protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of our Nation.”

Since 2012, the Excellence in Public Health Award has been given by the USPHS to visionary medical students nationally who are advancing initiatives to improve social justice.

“We are proud to present this award to Ms. Benesch. Through her advocacy for marginalized and underserved communities, she has shown a commitment to the Public Health Service mission to protect, promote and advance the health and safety of the nation,” said Brad Austin MPH, FACHE, Captain, USPHS Acting Regional Health Administrator.

“To me, this award highlights the power of collaboration among diverse people to create positive changes in health and society,” said Benesch. “It’s important to me that those who advance public health outside the walls of hospitals and universities are recognized just as much for their contributions to health as anyone with a white coat, and they deserve this award just as much as I do.”

Karen Sokal-Gutierrez, a clinical professor in the JMP, advised Benesch’s soda tax research. She said, “Tara is an outstanding student all around. In class, she excelled. Outside of class, she has been very involved with the Suitcase Clinic as well as a number of other health care projects.”

Leanna Lewis, the administrative program director for the PRIME-US, lauded Benesch’s ability to break down complex medical concepts and articulate the impact for vulnerable and under-resourced populations.

“Tara has a keen ability to make concepts accessible to all learners and her willingness to use that skill to address health inequities provided a service to the entire JMP and School community,” Lewis said.

Benesch plans to continue on her path of transformative impact through collaborating with local schools and communities to identify pressing health challenges and addressing the immediate clinical needs of patients as well as the root of health inequities through innovative policies and programs.

“I think this has to happen in collaboration with educators, through mentorship and pipeline programs, and by supporting policies that ensure that black and brown students and students from low-income backgrounds have equal access to the resources, opportunities, and information they need to pursue careers in health and science,” she said.

By Brian Maxey