Grad students earn president's highest honor

UC president honors students for outstanding research and creative excellence

By Melanie Schefft and Richard Puff


For their outstanding innovative research, community service and significant creative contributions, three University of Cincinnati graduate students were honored by UC's President Neville G. Pinto with the 2021 Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence in a virtual ceremony on April 27.

Established in 2017, the Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence (PMGSE) is a prestigious honor awarded to exceptional students who are graduating from their master's or doctoral program. These students best exemplify scholarship, leadership, character, service and the ideals of the university.

Virtual screen with 12 windows showing UC students and leadership during a PLME and PMGSE ceremony in 2021.

UC President Neville G. Pinto, upper left, presents the Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence and the Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence awards during the 2021 award ceremony with the help of UC Provost Kristi Nelson, second from bottom right, and Vice Provost for International Affairs Raj Mehta, bottom right.

In alphabetical order, the PMGSE awardees are Adeboye Adejare Jr., biomedical informatics in the College of Medicine; Ayad Ali, immunology from the College of Medicine; and Sakinah Hofler, creative writing fiction in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Adeboye Adejare Jr.

Portrait photo of UC's Adeboye Adejare

Adeboye Adejare

Adeboye Adejare Jr. is known to everyone as AJ. He’s also now known as a presidential medalist. Adejare, who is finishing his doctorate in biomedical informatics at the UC College of Medicine, is a 2021 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence.

“I am deeply honored to receive this award. It brings me joy to know that the university is recognizing my research, academics and organization efforts,” says Adejare.

HIs research has leveraged biomedical informatics to investigate disparities in medicine. He developed a software tool he calls “The Gambler” that can be used in shared decision-making with patients.

“We used the tool to acquire a patient’s preferences and values for different treatment options for end-stage kidney disease, then compare if there are any discernible differences in valuation for these treatments between African American and Caucasian patients. With this knowledge we can work to facilitate better shared decision-making events with patients while combating disparities,” he explains.

Mark Eckman, MD, Alice Margaret Posey Endowed Chair in the Department of Internal Medicine, who has worked with Adejare for the last two years as his faculty adviser, says the software tool is very valuable for both research and practical applications, from patient specific decision support and analysis to policy level cost effectiveness analyses. It also has been used as a support tool for patients receiving hemodialysis, kidney transplant recipients and those with chronic hepatitis C.

“A.J. is passionate about using the tools of biomedical informatics to explore and mitigate racial disparities in health care. He has, in fact, coined the term ‘equiformatics’ to describe this concept.”

Adejare defines equiformatics as the field of investigating disparities and the pursuit of health equity restoration for disadvantaged groups through biomedical informatics.

The Columbus-born and New Jersey-raised Adejare has also spent generous amounts of time helping other graduate students. He has served as president of the Biomedical Informatics Student Association, where he helped develop a journal club. He has served as co-chair of the UC Science Policy Group, which helps train student scientists and how they can be effective communicators of science with respect to government policy development. In his spare time, he has volunteered to run esports tournaments, “which allow me an outlet to have fun while meeting people,” he says.

Adejare plans to graduate this summer, but has not decided what comes next for him. “I will take time to regroup, which will allow me time to know possible directions I could take my research,” he says.

He thanks Eckman, as well as the biomedical informatics department for providing him the opportunity to succeed in his research and academics and his family for supporting him. He also is grateful to the American Medical Informatics Association for spotlighting his research; Rob Ireton, software applications developer, and the Center for Health Informatics for technical support of his work; and offers special thanks to Paige Greenwood, a UC neuroscience doctoral candidate who co-chaired the Science Policy Group with him to push policy forward in the midst of the pandemic.

Ayad Ali

Five people stand together at UC's 2015 White Coat Ceremony.

Ayad Ali, in center, during his White Coat Ceremony in 2015.

During his time as a graduate student in the College of Medicine, Ayad Ali has “excelled in research while remaining passionately committed to service,” says Stephen Waggoner, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics. 

Ali’s research efforts in Waggoner’s lab and his service contributions have earned him the 2021 Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence award. 

“His selflessness, humility and empathy are an aspirational paragon for his fellow students,” Waggoner adds. “These features coupled with his unimpeachable integrity, emotional intelligence and empowerment of others has led Ayad to emerge as an extraordinary leader with a promising future in education, clinical care and scientific exploration.”

Ali is completing his doctoral work in immunology and is a medical student in the college’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP).

Born and raised in Montreal, Canada, Ali has been fascinated with science most of his life. As a teen he shadowed physicians in the intensive care unit and interned in college research laboratories. He then took three years to complete his bachelor’s degree at McGill University, where he was part of a research team investigating recurring breast cancer following chemotherapy.

The team found that chemotherapy would effectively target the bulk of the tumor but leave unaffected a small subset of cancer cells inherently resistant, resulting in recurrence of a now chemotherapy-resistant tumor. “I knew then that I not only wanted to care for patients suffering from these terrible diseases, but also help uncover novel treatments aimed at curing them,” he says.

Ali’s current research is focused on uncovering the mechanism by which natural killer cells (NK) dampen or promote host immunity to invading pathogens. NK cells are potent suppressors of the body’s ability to generate protective antibodies and cytolytic T-cells needed for viral clearance, he says.

“I hope that this work leads to new therapeutics in adjunct to current vaccine platforms to help boost antibody generation against intractable pathogens,” Ali says.

Outside of the lab, Ali has served on the admissions committee for the MSTP program, been an undergraduate mentor and institutional representative for the American Physician Scientist Association. He also served as co-editor-in-chief on the textbook “Pharmacology You See,” published in 2018.

The blending of surgical and medical care for patients with ear, nose and throat issues has Ali considering an otolaryngology residency. “I love how broad the scope of care can be, encompassing neurologic, oncologic and endocrine cases, to name a few. Otolaryngology also offers unique niches ripe for research with an immunologist’s perspective,” he says.

With his medical degree and residency still two years away, Ali is happy to celebrate being named a presidential medalist.

“I am absolutely humbled that my scientific and personal endeavors were recognized at this level,” Ali says. “More importantly, I am extremely grateful for all the opportunities made available to me through the Medical Scientist Training Program and the amazing colleagues and mentors who have shaped my training path. The achievements that this award honors reflects years of hard work, personal growth and an unwavering desire to give back to those who have helped me succeed.”

Sakinah Hofler

When it comes to those rare students who show unique talent in both right brain and left brain, Sakinah Hofler is certainly UC’s shining star.

UC's Sakinah Hofler stands on a stage giving a TEDx Talk.

Sakinah Hofler giving a TEDxUCincinnati talk to discuss how we can use writing to bear witness: to see, capture, process and analyze what is happening around us.

Against a backdrop of prior college degrees that include a bachelor’s in chemical engineering and a master’s in engineering management — then another master’s degree in creative writing and a newly earned doctorate in creative writing in fiction later this month leaves no doubt that there is nothing Hofler can’t tackle. 

It was during her time working for the U.S. Department of Defense where Hofler was appreciative of her engineering education but because of her passion for writing, Hofler thought, “Maybe there’s a way.”

Before long she was graduating with another master’s in creative writing. Impressed with UC's faculty in the English and comparative literature program, Hofler became a doctoral candidate in that department, working on her dissertation titled, “Starshine, Stock, Clay,” and the rest is history.

“It was a hard decision, and I’m grateful for my engineering background because it taught me discipline, but I get to wake up now and do what I love,” says Hofler. 

Since 2017, Hofler’s scholarships, awards and honors have been numerous and include several national and international awards for fiction and poetry, the Albert C. Yates Fellowship Program, Charles Phelps Taft Dissertation Fellowship and the P.E.O. (Philanthropic Education Organization) Scholar Award at UC. 

Through the Alliance for the Arts Student Conference for research-1 universities, whose goal is to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, Hofler met many amazing people from sculptors to engineers and others who are writing plays — many who are combining the arts and sciences to take innovation one step further.

“Compared to other institutions that keep you focused primarily on your field of study, here at UC they encourage us to build interdisciplinary connections and do things outside of our department,” says Hofler. 

In addition to writing plays, short fiction and poetry for print and online, Hofler’s writing oeuvre also includes radio stories and scholarly articles. Through an opportunity to work with PBS NewsHour recently on an initiative with local high school students, Hofler talked about the need to promote more arts in the K-12 school system.

Her service in campus organizations included mentoring first-year master’s and doctoral students. As a mentor for McNair Scholars Program first-generation college students, she helps undergrads prepare for graduate school, especially those toying with the idea of getting a doctorate. 

“Several of my former mentees are now in master’s programs or working full time, with one in Hollywood trying to make it as a screenwriter,” says Hofler. “As a first-time new mom last October, I hope to show other students that it can be done. You can achieve a graduate degree while also having a family. It’s hard but it’s possible and very rewarding.”

With her PhD, Hofler is considering academia and will start her career as a visiting professor in creative writing at Loyola University in New Orleans this fall.


Learn more about the UC Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence.


Featured image at top: Red and white graphic design highlighting UC's Presidential Medal of Graduate Student Excellence. Graphic design/Ben Gardner/UC Creative + Brand

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