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Sanford Scholar Award Program

The Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion Sanford Scholar Award Program provides research opportunities to a competitively selected group of UC San Diego medical, pharmacy, and graduate public health students to conduct basic and/or applied research that aims to understand and/or increase empathy. In addition to conducting research, students engage in a summer program comprised of didactic workshops on the science and practice of empathy and compassion, a compassion training series, a cultural humility series, and an ethics workshop.

The award provides financial support to students for their compassion-related research projects under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Mentors assist scholars in carrying out their research by providing guidance at all stages of the project, submitting project information to the IRB once funded, and participating in specially devised compassion trainings, among other responsibilities. In the process, students benefit from mentor guidance and expertise, faculty benefit from funded student support for projects, and the community at-large benefits from impactful research findings. 

Applications for the 2023-2024 Sanford Scholars Award Program are now open. Visit our Open Funding Opportunities page for more information. 

Meet our Sanford Scholars

2022-23 Scholars

Therese (Tess) Ahlers


Faculty Mentor: Julie Celebi, MD

Project Title: Impact of Physician Mindful Self-Compassion Training on Patient Care

Project Description: Physicians and patients are suffering alike from the effects of healthcare provider burnout. In this study, we aim to determine if completing the six-week Self-Compassion Training for Healthcare Communities (a consolidated Self-Compassion course tailored for healthcare professionals) affects the experience of the patients of the physician. We hypothesize that the patients of physicians who completed the course will experience more compassionate care from their physicians than patients of physicians who did not complete the course.


Nissma Benchkeih


Faculty Mentor: Susan Lee, MD

Project Title: The Impact of Social Support on Self Compassion, Anxiety, and Depression in Long COVID-19 Patients

Project Description: Over 430 million people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 worldwide. While most patients recover completely, many continue to suffer from an array of symptoms including anxiety and depression lasting more than 12 weeks. Little is known about Long-COVID risk factors and treatment, often exacerbating Long-COVID patient’s sense of helplessness and hopelessness. To address psychosocial symptoms seen in these patients, the UCSD Long-COVID Clinic established a patient support group led by a psychologist and spiritual leader. This project aims to assess the effect of social support and a multidisciplinary team approach on self-compassion, anxiety, and depression among patients suffering from Long-COVID.


Carmen Conroy


Faculty Mentor: Sheila Mody, MD

Project Title: Assessing Interest in peer Doula-facilitated Empathy and Self-compassion training among women with history of Early Pregnancy Loss (AIDES for EPL)

Project Description: Miscarriage, also known as early pregnancy loss (EPL), can result in psychological complications, including an increased risk of developing anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder; however, limited data exist to elucidate which factors—such as high self-compassion or the existence of a strong interpersonal support network—might help attenuate poor mental health related to EPL. In this study, we will assess the potential for a peer support doula (trained in pain management, self-compassion, and emotional support techniques) as a possible EPL intervention that could result in improved emotional wellbeing and ability to cope post-EPL.


Tanya Jain and Nisha Uppuluri


Faculty Mentor: Megha Shankar, MD

Project Title: Fostering Medical Student Empathy and Compassion: Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a Trauma-Informed Care Elective

Project Description: In order to address current gaps in trauma-informed care (TIC) education for medical students, we plan to develop, implement, and evaluate a skills-focused TIC elective at the UCSD School of Medicine (SOM). Through this elective, we hope to improve students’ TIC knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Students will learn about the intersectional nature of trauma and health and practice techniques for compassionate and empathetic care for patients who have experienced trauma. The effectiveness of the elective will be assessed through a mixed-methods study, which will include community partnerships for curriculum development and surveys and focus groups for student evaluation.


Kanchi Mehta


Faculty Mentor: Helen Wang, MD

Project Title: Exploring the role of social media on a sense of belongingness and professional identity formation during the first and second years of medical school.

Project Description: In medicine, professional identity formation (PIF) is how an individual undergoes professional socialization to adapt their pre-existing identity to "think, act, and feel like a physician." Elements in students’ support systems as they undergo this transformation (i.e. social media networks) influence their sense of belonging (SB) and empathy. Feelings of marginalization arise without SB, which interfere with PIF and contribute to physician burnout, loss of empathy, and risks to patient safety. We aim to collect qualitative and quantitative data to gain a nuanced understanding of first- and second-year medical students’ interactions with social media as it relates to SB and PIF.


 Niveda (Nivi) Rao


Faculty Mentor: Geoff Noel, PhD

Project Title: Measuring the effects of different types of body donor presentation on medical students’ empathy and inclusion during dissection

Project Description: The goal of this study is to understand how the presentation of a body donor can impact student empathy and compassion during cadaveric dissection. Personal traits and identifiable information about the donor can help students think about their first patient through a humanistic lens. We will be assessing first-year medical students’ physiological and behavioral responses to different body donor presentations during cadaveric dissection. If students can identify emotionally and physically to their body donors they are working with, we hypothesize that students can feel more empathy and compassion towards their donors in approaching dissection.


Ishan Saha


Faculty Mentor: Jennifer Anger, MD, MPH

Project Title: The influence of gender minority stress and cumulative psychosocial conditions on sexual risk behavior among transgender women and cisgender men who have sex with men at risk of HIV

Project Description: Our project aims to understand the disproportionately high vulnerability of transgender women to HIV infection through syndemics theory. Syndemics theory suggests that cumulative exposure to various psychosocial conditions, or “syndemics,” overlap to increase the risk of medical conditions among certain populations. While past studies have found that higher syndemics counts are associated with increased HIV risk among cisgender men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women, we are conducting this between-groups study to determine if the unique experience of gender dysphoria and gender minority stress mediates syndemics and increases HIV risk among transgender women. We are additionally measuring self-compassion to assess whether it may protect against increased syndemics and HIV risk among MSM and transgender women.


Florence Wu


Faculty Mentor: Maria Pelucio, MD

Project Title: The Co-Production of Empathic Communication Interventions in Adolescents

Project Description: Mental health conditions are rising in adolescents and with existing research demonstrating the importance of social support in adolescent mental health, we chose to explore the impact of improving empathic communication skills in adolescents with the hope of fostering healthy relationships. This project aims to examine the impact of co-producing an educational intervention on empathic communication with adolescents. Through co-production, we hope to increase content relevancy and acceptability of the intervention among high school students.

2021-22 Scholars

Sarah Alsamman

Sarah Alsamman

Faculty Mentor: Wael Al-Delaimy, MD PhD

Project Title: Self-Compassion and Mental Health in Syrian Refugees

Project DescriptionThe Syrian refugee crisis is the largest humanitarian emergency of our time. Since 2011, 6.6 million people have been displaced, 5.6 million of whom are hosted in neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. In the United States, there are more than 15,000 resettled Syrian refugees. Nations impacted by mass refugee migration must support the basic living, educational, healthcare, and mental health needs of these families. Psychological support tends to be scarce despite the large need. Refugees are exposed to high levels of stressors pre-migration and during the transition to a different country, including violence, torture, death of loved ones, and lack of basic resources. Post-migration, during resettlement, they face new challenges such as discrimination, language barriers, unemployment, and loneliness. As a result of the accumulation of pre-and post-migration stressors, refugee populations have a well-documented higher mental health morbidity with increased rates of PTSD, depression, and anxiety when compared to the general population. Self-compassion moderates the impacts of stressors on mental health. However, self-compassion and its relationship with mental health in the context of the traumatic experiences encountered by refugees has not been described. Our study seeks to assess the mental health status, self-compassion, and resilience of refugee adults living in Jordan and in the US. By characterizing the psychological effects of their trauma and learning more about what gives them strength and purpose we will be better prepared to create useful interventions that support this population.


Alan Aung

Alan Aung

Faculty Mentor: Lisa Eyler, PhD

Project Title: Effects of Compassion Meditation and Repeated Mantras of Purpose on Undergraduate Medical Student Compassion and Burnout

Project DescriptionTo test the efficacy of a short training on lovingkindness meditation that includes the creation of a personalized mantra that reminds each student about their motivations, purpose, or situations where they have felt strong empathy in the past. Students will be encouraged to repeat their mantra or meditation before seeing patients during their MS3 internal medicine rotations. We will compare outcomes related to compassionate patient care and self-reported compassion and burnout between students who receive the training versus those who do. Potential moderators and mediators of the training effects will be explored.


Jessica Della Ripa

Jessica Della Ripa

Faculty Mentor: Julia Cormano, MD

Project Title: Cultivating Empathy and Compassion in Gestational Surrogacy

Project DescriptionThe aim of my project is to gain insight into effective methods in teaching physician students empathy and compassion in gestational surrogacy. We will augment the curriculum of an existing session in the third-year OBGYN Clerkship. The session will educate students on the background of gestational surrogacy and provide instruction on how to improve students’ empathy and compassion skills when treating patients undergoing gestational surrogacy. The efficacy of this curriculum will be used to inform methods of teaching empathy and compassion in other areas of women’s health.


Morgan Desjardins

Morgan Desjardins

Faculty Mentor: Carla Demeterco-Berggren, MD

Project Title: Food Insecurity and Its Impact on Diabetes Management in Children with Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes

Project DescriptionDiet is a pillar of good Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes management but food instability is on the rise in the United States. Dr. Demeterco began screening her patients in the RCHSD Diabetes Clinic about their access to good nutrition. It became clear that health providers are uncomfortable administering the screening and that patients are uncomfortable sharing their food security status. Our project seeks to use compassion training to create a safe environment for providers conducting the survey and patients disclosing their food and nutrition needs. This allows us to provide patients and families better support through food resources.


Raneem Mokatrin

Raneem Mokatrin

Faculty Mentor: Maja Marinkovic, MD

Project Title:  The Effects of a Gender-Affirming Care Educational Module on Empathy, Knowledge and Implicit Bias among Medical Students

Project DescriptionThis project aims to mitigate health disparities among the transgender and non-binary (TGNB) population by training future physicians to provide competent gender-affirming care rooted in cultural humility. Under the guidance of Dr. Maja Marinkovic, I am developing an educational module that will provide medical students with the conceptual framework and clinical tools necessary to deliver high-quality gender-affirming care. I will then assess the module’s impact on participant knowledge and empathy towards TGNB patients. Improvements in knowledge and empathy may ultimately reduce provider-dependent barriers to health equity, such as refusal of care, incorrect usage of pronouns, and ignorance of treatment guidelines.


Domonique Patterson


Faculty Mentor: Elaine Tanaka, MD

Project Title: Breast Cancer Decision Regret in Marginalized Communities

Project DescriptionBreast Cancer Decision Regret in Marginalized Communities: Racial and ethnic disparities in breast cancer outcomes are regrettably pronounced in the U.S overall and persist in smaller populations including California and San Diego county itself. The goal of this project is to help elucidate part of the many complex factors that contribute to this disparity by exploring what influences treatment decision regret during breast cancer survivorship. Understanding what leads to decision regret can help improve health outcomes, quality of life, and empower breast cancer patients in their initial decision-making processes as well as inform physicians about how to provide equitable and compassionate care to these patients.


Danielle Schurr


Faculty Mentor: Eric Halgren, PhD and Sharona Ben-Haim, MD

Project Title: Human Brain Activity Mapping for Empathy and Compassion

Project DescriptionUnderstanding that empathy is a critical component of human social interaction and cognition, both in informal and occupational contexts, the goal of our study is to map the empathic pathways in the brain using tasks to elicit neural activity. We hope to elicit empathic pain by presenting videos of individuals experiencing pain, modulate perceived pain through contextual information, identify its neural signature, and compare with that of firsthand experience. This will be done through validated tasks and mapping of the neural representation at relevant limbic sites of sustained pain resulting from acute discomfort elicited by bright lights or loud sounds.


Jin Su


Faculty Mentor: Natalie Rodriguez, MD

Project Title: Examining the effect of mindful self-compassion as a restorative justice practice for adolescents

Project DescriptionPunitive disciplinary measures (e.g. detention, suspension) are consistently associated with negative academic outcomes, including dropping out of school. These passive processes do not provide students opportunities to actively learn and apply coping skills required to recognize and regulate the behaviors and attitudes which may have contributed to the disciplinary consequences. Meditation and mindfulness practice - shown to be an effective intervention in the treatment of physiologic, psychosocial, and behavioral conditions among youth - could potentially serve as an alternative, non-punitive intervention. This project aims to examine how mindful self-compassion translates to behavioral changes that affect disciplinary records in a school setting amongst adolescents.


Nicole Sun

Nicole Sun

Faculty Mentor: Mario Bialostozky, MD

Project Title: Physician Well-Being, Empathy, and the EHR: Investigating the Potential Impact of EHR Burden from a QI Framework

Project DescriptionThis project is an extension of a study within the Department of Pediatrics at Rady Children’s Hospital that identified specific divisions with both high physician burnout reports and high Electronic Health Record utilization metrics. Using this initial study as a foundation, our project aims to further assess the potential relationship between high ratings in specific EHR categories and resultant self-reported physician burnout and empathy scores. We will be employing this data to construct targeted interventions to reduce the impact of the EHR in these realms while ultimately evaluating the potential impact this has on physician well-being and empathetic capacity pre-and post-intervention.


Nicholas Wu

Nick Wu

Faculty Mentor: Veronica Cardenas, PhD

Project Title: Examinations of Physicians Perspectives on Compassion and Cultural Humility in EOL Discussions

Project DescriptionConducting difficult conversations with patients in a compassionate manner has been shown to have positive impacts on provider-patient relationships and patient quality of life, particularly in the context of end-of-life care. This project aims to identify obstacles that impact a physician’s ability to carry out these types of conversations with culturally diverse cancer patients and subsequently determine ways in which compassion can be better incorporated into the process. We will be interviewing physicians in the UC San Diego Health Care System and asking them to share their perspectives on difficult conversations, burnout, cultural humility, and other factors that affect their experience and interactions with patients.

2020-21 Scholars

Caitlyn Belza


Project Title: The effects of compassion and empathy on wellness in an adolescent population during a global crisis

Faculty Mentor: Michelle Johnson, MD

Project Description: As a result of the current global crisis, many have suffered from stress, anxiety and emotional anguish while enduring self-isolation and social distancing. This outreach project was designed to integrate mindful self-compassion into the routines of adolescents through a framework that promotes mental health, emotional resilience and wellness. These practices will be orchestrated though weekly wellness check-ins involving guided meditation, gratitude journaling, and open discussion regarding various tools for improved wellbeing. By utilizing a quality improvement survey, I will evaluate the relationship between mindful self-compassion and self-reported assessment of lifestyle wellness in a high school population. The goal of this study is to create a lasting positive impact for the participants, while testing a hypothesis that potentially provides a scalable solution to the struggle faced by adolescents worldwide.


Reem Halabi


Project Title: The role of volunteering at free clinics in reinforcing empathy and combatting burnout among medical students.

Faculty Mentor: Lisa Eyler, PhD

Project Description: Student-Run Free Clinics (SRFC) provide healthcare access to underserved patients who would not otherwise be able to afford medical care. They also serve as a powerful educational tool for medical students, allowing them to gain early exposure to the clinical setting and to have an active role in taking care of patients, often from marginalized and minoritized groups. There have been few studies, however, investigating the effect of involvement in SRFC on student’s attitudes towards others and their well-being. Our study focuses on assessing empathy, resilience, and burnout among rising MS2 and MS4 students at the UCSD SOM via an online survey. Specifically, we are investigating the role of volunteerism at the UCSD student-run free clinics (SRFC) in cultivating empathy and resilience and in combating burnout among medical students. We will also examine whether relationships of SRFC volunteerism to empathy, resilience and burnout differe depending on the year in medical school. We also hope to continue this study with a second assessment one year later to examine within-person change. Results should help to inform efforts to enhance empathy and reduce burnout throughout the medical curriculum.


Rahil Hernandez & Alec Terrana


Rahil Hernandez


Alec Terrana

Project Title: Leading with Compassionate Care: Evaluating the Impact of a Mindful Student Leadership, Program on Health Sciences Graduate Students

Faculty Mentor: Deepa Sannidhi

Project Description: “Leading with Compassionate Care” is a pilot study aimed towards developing, implementing, and evaluating a mindful leadership course targeted specifically for UCSD’s medical, pharmacy, and public health students. This 8-week elective will educate students in using mindfulness techniques to resist exacerbating symptoms of stress, and burnout. Furthermore, this course will help students strengthen their capacity for compassion and how to positively influence others towards more mindful behavior. Alec Terrana and Rahil Hernandez will assess participants’ acquisition of these skills qualitatively and quantitatively to strengthen the program for future offerings that further promote mindful leadership.


Kyleigh Kirbach


Project Title: Community Needs Assessment of Lifestyle Medicine Resources in San Diego County for the Medically Underserved Using the PRECEDE- PROCEED Model

Faculty Mentor: Deepa Sannidhi

Project Description: Children in medically underserved areas of San Diego County are twice as likely to be overweight or obese than those with adequate access to care, and it is known that obesity increases one's risk for depression, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Access to community programs that provide education and services focused on the 6 pillars of lifestyle medicine - healthy eating, physical activity, sleep hygiene, stress management, relationship building, and reduction of risky behaviors - are essential for the adoption of healthy lifestyle habits and prevention and management of obesity. Through a partnership with the Childhood Obesity Initiative, this project will map the lifestyle medicine resources available to children in underserved communities of San Diego County, assess regional gaps in community providers and services, and build on an existing clinic-community referral system to improve community access to lifestyle medicine resources for children.


Patrick Loehr


Project Title: Defining and Assessing Empathy in Preclinical Medical Education through Group Objective Structured Clinical, Evaluations (GOSCEs) and Objective Structured Clinical Evaluations (OSCEs) at UCSD School of Medicine

Faculty Mentor: Charles Goldberg, MD

Project Description: The goal of this project is twofold: first, to operationalize empathy within the scope of preclinical medical education at UCSD School of Medicine; second, to develop a method to formally assess in an ongoing and constructive fashion a preclinical medical student’s ability to demonstrate empathy in GOSCEs and OSCEs. To this end, I will collaborate with clinicians and educators who contribute their perspective to the pre-clinical medical curriculum at the UCSD School of Medicine, including the Clinical Foundations course directors; faculty and administrators who work in the capacity of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; and the Professional Development Center staff.


Eric Miller


Project Title: Mixed-methods analysis of emotinal wellbeing and mental health among adolescents in the context of the social environment and a digital mindfulness-based intervention

Faculty Mentor: Janis H. Jenkins, PhD, MD

Project Description: We are studying how adolescents’ mental health and emotional wellbeing are influenced by their social environment, including sources of inequality and structural violence, as well as sources of socioemotional resilience. Other members of our research group have collected a rich dataset among a group of middle school students in Southern California, the majority of whom are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged. For this project, I will be analyzing these data in novel ways, utilizing a combination of qualitative and quantitative analytical methodologies. In addition, I will be analyzing data from a study evaluating a mobile meditation app for improving adolescents’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. Working alongside a talented team of anthropologists and global health researchers, I hope to contribute to our understanding of the social factors affecting adolescent mental health


Haley Moss


Project Title: Teaching Compassion at the UCSD Student Run Free Clinic Project

Faculty Mentor: Natalie Rodriguez, MD

Project Description:  One tenet of the UC San Diego Student Run Free Clinic is Humanism. This means the actions of those working in the clinic should be filled with compassion and empathy, respect, and self-awareness. Compassion is an important characteristic for medical providers to have as it leads to positive patient outcomes and improved provider wellness by fighting physician burnout. We will be creating, implementing, and longitudinally evaluating a curriculum that teaches compassion for others and self to first- and second-year medical students enrolled in the Community Advocacy Free-Clinic I elective at the UCSD School of Medicine.


Vojislav Maric

Project Title: A novel digital intervention for athletes integrating meditative breath focus and positive affect reflections

Faculty Mentor: Jyoti Mishra, PhD

Project Description: Healthy brains are wired to effectively and efficiently process information. These complex systems simultaneously ensure stability as well as flexibility, and reflect an essential capacity to adapt to constantly changing environmental and motivational contexts. This dynamic ability of human brains requiring multiple interacting mental operations is referred to as cognitive control. In sports, there is a mantra that the game is 90% mental, yet 90% of elite-athletic training is centered around physical training and optimization. Many aspects of cognitive control are vitally important for optimal athletic performance; hence, better understanding of cognitive control in these individuals, as well as targeting these cognitive abilities in interventions, may help optimize elite athletic performance. This study integrates BrainE, a mindfulness-based digital neuro-cognitive platform designed at UC San Diego, positive effect journaling, and an additional real-world physical performance assessment to better understand cognitive control networks and establish a novel neuroplasticity-targeted intervention that will provide direct athletic and cognitive benefit to critical aspects of elite-athlete performance.

In this study we aim to study a digital mindfulness-based intervention with additional compassion and positive effect journaling to benefit various aspects of cognitive control. Since this intervention can be administered completely digitally it is able to reach many patients and individuals regardless of socioeconomic status, race, geographic location and other common barriers to mental health care. In this sense, we hope to administer the intervention across many populations and help bridge the gap in mental health care.


Shelby Warren


Project Title: What Does Compassion Mean to Uninsured and Under-Resourced Communities of Color? Training Physicians to be Compassionate

Faculty Mentor: Elaine Tanaka, MD

Project Description: Despite the fact that "compassion" is frequently used as a metric for quality medical care, there is little research that supports what compassion means from the patient perspective. Rather, the majority of research publications seeking to understand compassion in patient-provider relationships rely upon theoretical definitions of compassion, often without hearing from the recipients of compassion themselves: patients. This study aims to understand what compassion means to uninsured and/or under-resourced Communities of Color, and will focus on gaining insight from Black American communities with the intent to utilize the results to create community-informed compassion training resources for health care providers.