UCSF Fresno Celebrates Commencement In-Person for the First Time Since 2019
By Brandy Ramos Nikaido
On June 9, 2022, UCSF Fresno celebrated commencement in person for the first time since 2019. In-person gatherings were not held to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Ninety-five medical residents and fellows, four oral and maxillofacial surgery dental residents and one head and neck oncology and microvascular reconstruction fellow, along with eight physician assistants in three different programs are completing training this year. The total number of graduates from UCSF Fresno training programs is 108. Many of the graduates are staying in Fresno and the Central Valley to care for patients, teach future physicians or continue their medical education.
“We are delighted to gather and celebrate in person this year after two years of virtual ceremonies,” said Lori Weichenthal, MD, Associate Dean for Graduate Medical Education and Clinical Affairs and the Designated Institutional Official at UCSF Fresno. “I want to thank everyone who helped make this event possible and to assure that we celebrate in an environment that aims to keep us healthy and safe.”
Residency is the required hands-on clinical training (postgraduate training) when clinicians fine tune skills under the guidance of attending faculty members prior to practicing independently. Resiliency, dedication, determination and commitment to service are common among UCSF Fresno learners and this year’s class demonstrated those traits throughout their training during the most challenging of times.
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Medical Education and Research Michael W. Peterson, MD, joined Dr. Weichenthal in congratulating the graduates and acknowledged their contributions to medical student education and for contributing to the learning environment at UCSF Fresno.
“We are grateful for the knowledge you have shared with those who follow in your footsteps and trust that the opportunities to teach have enhanced and enriched your training, said Dr. Peterson. Just as you have left your mark here, we hope that you remember the knowledge and skills you acquired at UCSF Fresno and the lessons learned from the patients we care for. Congratulations on your achievements UCSF Fresno Class of 2022. Go with confidence and compassion to serve and improve our communities, the health of your patients and of our profession.”
As the winner of the 2021 Henry J. Kaiser Award for Excellence in Teaching, the commencement keynote speaker was Mohammed Sani Bukari, MD. Dr. Bukari is a faculty member in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology and Oncology and director of the Sickle Cell Program at UCSF Fresno.
Graduates from Community Medical Centers’ General Dentistry Residency program also were recognized during the commencement program.
Numerous awards were presented during the ceremony.
Jeff Thomas, MD, Chief Quality and Medical Officer at Community Regional Medical Center, presented the House Staff Awards:
Eyad Almasri, MD, Assistant Dean for Research at UCSF Fresno, presented:
Wessel Meyer, MD, Associate Chief of Staff for Education, VA Central California Health Care System, presented:
David Peters, Vice President, Leon S. Peters Foundation, presented:
Michael W. Peterson, MD, Associate Dean, presented:
John Moua, MD, Chief of the Department of Pediatrics and board member, Fresno Madera Medical Society (FMMS) presented:
UCSF Fresno 2022 Commencement Highlights:
2022 Award Winners
Research Director, Emergency Medicine, UCSF Fresno “Kaiser Award for Excellence in Teaching”
UCSF Fresno Family and Community Medicine, “Outstanding First-Year Resident,” Community Medical Centers (CMC)
UCSF Fresno Family and Community Medicine Residency Program, “Outstanding Resident or Fellow Teacher” Community Medical Centers (CMC)
UCSF Fresno Family and Community Medicine Residency Program, “Outstanding Attending Teacher,” Community Medical Centers (CMC)
Community Medical Centers (CMC), “Outstanding Non-Physician Teacher”
Professor of Clinical Medicine and Liver Program Director, UCSF Fresno “Borba Faculty Research Award”
UCSF Fresno Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Program, UCSF Fresno Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Program, “Borba Fellow Research Award”
UCSF Fresno Internal Medicine Residency Program, UCSF Fresno Internal Medicine Residency Program, “Borba Resident Research Award”
UCSF Fresno Internal Medicine Residency Program, “ICare Award,” VA Central California Health Care System
UCSF Fresno OMFS Residency Program, “Leon S. Peters Resident of the Year Award,” Leon S. Peters Foundation
UCSF Fresno Pulmonary and Critical Care Fellowship, “Leon S. Peters Fellow of the Year Award,” Leon S. Peters Foundation
UCSF Fresno Pediatrics Residency Program, “Steven N. Parks Leadership Award,” Fresno Madera Medical Society
Graduate Stories from the Class of 2022
Nicholas Betchel, DO, is completing a four-year residency training program in Psychiatry at UCSF Fresno. After graduation, Dr. Betchel will continue his involvement as a member of the Consultation Liaison Psychiatry Service at Community Regional Medical Center and faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry.
“Working as a member of this team offers an opportunity to serve as a physician as well as a teacher,” he said.
Inspired by his father, an emergency medicine doctor, Dr. Betchel knew early on that he wanted to be a physician, too. But the loss of his dad during his senior year in high school was a significant setback. Dr. Betchel credits his spouse Kaitlen’s support with getting him back on the path to medicine after his father’s passing. The couple met at Fresno Pacific University.
Originally, Psychiatry was not on his radar in medical school. However, his first day of clinical rotation in the specialty cemented a decision he is incredibly grateful to have made. Interactions with patients had meaning for him and understanding them beyond their illness could contribute to better treatment outcomes.
“Being a physician encompasses all that I wanted from a career. It is challenging, interesting and serves as an opportunity to positively impact the lives of others,” he said.
Dr. Betchel grew up in Merced and graduated from Golden Valley High School. He completed his undergraduate education at Fresno Pacific University and earned a medical degree from Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona.
In his spare time, he enjoys outdoor hobbies such as hiking and fishing and recently, discovered the joy of cooking.
Charney Burk, MD, is completing a four-year residency training program in Emergency Medicine at UCSF Fresno. After graduation, Dr. Burk, originally from southern California, will join the UCSF Fresno Department of Emergency Medicine as faculty.
“I am fortunate to be able to stay here as faculty next year,” said Dr. Burk. “I love this family. I want to continue to work with this amazing team and want to maintain this amazing environment for future learners.”
Raised in Tustin, California, Dr. Burk attended the University of Portland as an athlete then transferred to and graduated from UCLA. She earned her medical degree from the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Dr. Burk was inspired to become a physician by her brother who attended medical school while she was at the University of Portland. The passion he had motivated her to take more biology courses even as a Mechanical Engineering major at the time. She developed a fascination with how the body works. A desire to learn more and to live a life of meaning further encouraged her.
But before medicine, there was sports. Dr. Burk devoted 20 years and daily efforts toward soccer. A career-ending injury at UCLA and a difficult experience at University of Portland affected her confidence as an athlete and both contributed to her ultimately “hanging up her cleats.”
“Now, I am grateful for what I experienced. It taught me grit, gave me insight into how to be a better teacher who is more aware of the psychology of high stakes learning and motivated me to be a true companion for others who are struggling, as I know the pain of experiencing a challenge as well.”
Originally, Dr. Burk thought she would be a pediatrician because she loves children or a psychiatrist because her heart bleeds for those who struggle with mental health. However, multiple mentors pointed her to Emergency Medicine. The team environment and pace and variety of patients solidified her calling.
She is grateful for the people in her life who have supported her and taught her along the way. Acknowledging family was especially important.
In her spare time, Dr. Burk likes to hike and enjoy the nature around Fresno with her fiancé and their puppy.
Marlon Echaverry, MD, is completing a three-year residency training program in Family and Community Medicine at UCSF Fresno. After graduation, Dr. Echaverry will join the UCSF Fresno Department of Family and Community Medicine as faculty to teach future physicians and care for area patients.
“I love teaching, so it was an easy decision to stay on and become clinical faculty with our Family Medicine Program,” said Dr. Echaverry.
Born in Nicaragua, Dr. Echaverry immigrated to the United States with his family when he was four years old. He grew up in Miami, Florida, attended Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School and graduated from Florida International University with a bachelor’s in Biology. He earned a medical degree from Ross School of Medicine and completed his clinical years in Bakersfield.
He was inspired to become a physician by his father, who was a pediatrician in a small town in Nicaragua and served as the doctor for the entire town. A love of science and using his knowledge and skills to serve underprivileged minorities also motivated him to become a doctor.
Obtaining U.S. citizenship and getting admitted to and completing medical school were challenging but a belief in hard work, working smarter and robust support helped him succeed.
“I would not be where I am if it were not for my family and my wife Dr. Rebecca Waters. We met in medical school, and she has been my rock through every obstacle,” said Dr. Echaverry.
Dr. Waters completed training in Family and Community Medicine at UCSF Fresno in 2020.
Some of his proudest moments include the birth of his child and graduating from medical school and having his father there before he passed. In his spare time, Dr. Echaverry previously enjoyed video games but nowadays, he prefers playing and spending time with his son and wife.
A first-generation Indian American, Neetu Malhi, MD, is completing a three-year residency training program in Internal Medicine at UCSF Fresno. After graduation, Dr. Malhi will work as a neurohospitalist at Community Regional Medical Center.
Dr. Malhi was born and raised in Fresno. She went to Central High East Campus for high school and graduated from Fresno State. She earned her medical degree from the UC Davis School of Medicine as part of the San Joaquin Valley Program in Medical Education (SJV PRIME).
She developed an interest in medicine at an early age after her family lost a loved one to pancreatic cancer and another loved one was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“These were challenging times for an immigrant family with limited medical knowledge,” said Dr. Malhi. “However, what stayed with us was the compassion, kindness, and support of the medical team during our lowest points.”
The kindness offered to her family then inspired Dr. Malhi to give back, especially when she contrasted her family’s experiences with those who had inequitable access to care locally and across the globe.
The community immersion she experienced as part of the SJV PRIME underscored the need for a culturally competent, diverse pool of physicians in the Valley, particularly those like Dr. Malhi looking to make an impact beyond the exam room.
She is amazed by the collective resilience of her colleagues during the pandemic, who, despite battling emotional, physical and mental exhaustion were steadfast in their commitment towards patients and their families.
Reflecting on her training, internal medicine sub-specialty exposure and faculty like Gregory Simpson, MD, (Dermatology) made for an engaging and supportive environment. Faculty mentors such as Ivance Pugoy, MD, (outpatient) and Steven Stoltz, MD (inpatient) were instrumental to her completing residency training at UCSF Fresno and helped shape her journey starting when she was a third-year medical student until now.
“No journey is without obstacles. It is thanks to the support of family, friends, and mentors that any obstacles in my way seemed insignificant,” said Dr. Malhi. “My grandmother especially has an unwavering faith in me and is one of my greatest inspirations. Whatever achievements in life are thanks to the sacrifices of my parents and grandmother.”
In her spare time, Dr. Malhi enjoys spending time with her family and taking part in leisurely activities like bike rides, games, or quick jaunts to the coast or mountains.
Nicole Takeda, MD, is completing a five-year General Surgery residency at UCSF Fresno. She is staying to complete a fellowship in Minimally Invasive and Bariatric Surgery with Advanced Laparoscopic Surgery Associates Medical Group in Fresno.
Born and raised in Fresno, she attended Valley Oak Elementary School, Kastner Intermediate School, and Clovis West High School. She obtained a bachelor’s in Human Biology from UC San Diego and earned a medical degree from the UC Davis School of Medicine.
“A future in medicine was not immediately clear to me,” said Dr. Takeda. “I worked in pharmaceutical research. I was focusing on diseases, illnesses, and conditions, but I felt disconnected from the people at the core of our mission.”
Wanting to make an impact, she applied for volunteer jobs and landed one at a mobile health clinic where she witnessed the effects of health care inequality. Those images left an indelible mark and further steered her toward medicine. However, her father unexpectedly died during her fourth year in medical school.
“That moment continues to color my perspective and shapes my relationships. As a soon to be physician (at the time), a profession closely intertwined with death, I had come to a compromise or at least an understanding with death,” Dr. Takeda said. “I never anticipated what it would feel like to lose someone you love.”
Her father’s death taught life-changing lessons that resonate in her work. “It is important to consider the role we play as physicians,” she said. “Our words and actions matter. It takes little energy to be kind, and to the recipient, it may mean the world. We also must make our time count because sometimes there is no later.”
While patient advocacy drew her to medicine, she chose surgery for the hands-on patient care that combines a quest for knowledge with a way to serve and alleviate suffering.
She is a proud aunt to two amazing nieces who are a reminder to cherish what is often taken for granted.
Since her job requires her to be indoors, Dr. Takeda’s spare time is spent outdoors – running, hiking, fishing, camping, and enjoying family time.
Reflecting on training at UCSF Fresno, she said, “The faculty, staff, residents, students, and patients make this program unique. It is a culture that provides support and flexibility which are vital in a busy work environment. Serving the Valley is an opportunity to care for those in need and to learn from unique pathologies and disease processes.”
Cristina Vega, PA-C, ATC-L, MMSc, MHA/Ed, completed a 12-month postgraduate physician assistant (PA) residency training program in Orthopaedic Surgery at UCSF Fresno. Raised in Snellville, Georgia, a suburb outside of Atlanta, PA Vega stayed local after completing training. She is currently employed by Central California Faculty Medical Group and working in a clinical setting at University Orthopaedic Associates in Clovis and assists with surgeries.
PA Vega attended Brookwood High School, the University of Georgia and graduated from Emory University School of Medicine’s Physician Assistant Program. Prior to PA school, she worked in sports medicine with orthopaedic physicians. A mentor who had followed the same path encouraged her to become a PA.
“I never thought I would get into PA school because I have a learning disability and I am not a strong test taker,” she said.
Her PA school evaluated applicants comprehensively and considered more than grades and test scores. School was demanding but a strong support system and accommodations approved for testing and tutors helped greatly.
“I did not feel prepared to start my career unless I continued my education in the field I wanted to work in,” said Vega. “I loved working directly with the attendings and residents. I am much more confident in my ability having completed the UCSF Fresno Orthopaedic PA Residency Program.”
PA Vega decided to stay because of the family atmosphere in ortho. She works in multiple specialties and sees a variety of cases. In addition, the Fresno/Clovis area reminded her of where she grew up. It felt like home.
In her spare time, she enjoys being outside and staying active with water sports, hiking and yoga. She enjoys visiting family in the East Bay and watching her niece and nephews grow up.