Given annually to medical students in recognition of their commitment to addressing public health issues in their community, the competitive U.S. Public Health Service Excellence in Public Health Award rewards visionary medical students who are advancing initiatives to improve public health and to the goals and priorities of Healthy People 2030 and the Surgeon General’s Priorities.
This is the ninth consecutive year Geisel School of Medicine students have received this award.
As leaders in today's complex health care system, physicians’ commitment to public health is essential to improving the understanding of the important roles of both the medical practitioner and their patients in promoting healthy lifestyles.
Exemplifying this commitment, James Feng ’25 and Omar Sajjad ’26 were recognized for their work leading a public health collaboration with nonprofit organizations throughout the Upper Valley, including Visions for Creative Housing Solutions. With secured grant funding, they established a diverse, sustainable health education and recreation program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities—a population that is often overlooked and not always able to advocate for themselves.
“James and Omar have demonstrated remarkable leadership in spearheading a program created to teach adults with disabilities fundamental concepts about preventative and lifestyle medicine in an interactive, accessible manner,” says Roshini Pinto-Powell, MD, associate dean of admissions at Geisel. “Designed to adapt to different care models and settings, their wide array of programming has included mental health discussions, community service projects, art therapy sessions, and fitness classes that have positively impacted the lives of numerous adults with disabilities in the Upper Valley.”
For the past 10 years, Feng and Sajjad have been advocates for the health and well-being of people with disabilities—and as future physicians they are committed to fostering strong therapeutic alliances with their patients and communities.
Feng says, “It has always been something in which I find tremendous value, not only because it has helped me learn more about the people and places I have called home, but because it was something that also sparked joy for me.”
He attributes the depth of his volunteer work with NGOs and social service organizations prior to medical school as his motivation to pursue healthcare as a career. “This same interest is what drove me to join the Community Health Scholars program at Geisel, and it was through this program that I was introduced to Visions for Creative Housing Solutions and their fantastic work,” he says. Feng also volunteers at the Good Neighbor Health clinic, Geisel community vaccine clinics, and Willing Hands.
Disability awareness and advocacy are close to Sajjad’s heart. He has volunteered with students on the autism spectrum since high school through a peer program called Best Buddies, and throughout college where he started a service club focused on mentoring students with disabilities. “In my hometown, I also worked with my local community center to make it more accessible to people who use wheelchairs,” he says. “The center became the one of the first in California to be officially gold-certified as special needs-friendly.
“When I arrived in Hanover, I was eager to find rewarding service opportunities with this demographic. Eventually James and I decided to establish our own program, which was initially supported with a 2022-23 Schweitzer Fellowship. Through our work, we have built a strong, sustainable connection with our Visions partners.” Sajjad also co-founded Geisel’s History of Medicine Society, helps run the MENASA (Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian Students’ Association) Refugee Health Program, and volunteers at Geisel’s community vaccine clinics.
Feng and Sajjad launched their dynamic, engaging healthy lifestyles program with residents in Visions for Creative Housing Solutions’ three assisted living communities within the Upper Valley.
Their goal was to create an interactive health education and enrichment program designed to promote healthy and active lifestyles among the Visions residents. The program is a sustainable initiative centered around the specific needs of Visions based on regular polling of the residents and staff. Their faculty mentor is Professor Emeritus David Nierenberg, MD, a longtime advocate for autism awareness.
“Omar and James’s leadership, enthusiasm, and hard work has helped marshal their medical student peers to volunteer in the program, preparing Geisel students to better communicate with, and more effectively care for, this medically underserved patient population,” Pinto-Powell says. “In the long term, the program aims to contribute to reduced healthcare spending and morbidity among said population. Through this rewarding work, Omar and James have enriched their community by working hard to provide adults with disabilities equitable access to health education and by empowering them to take charge of their physical, social, and mental well-being.”
These experiences have informed their perspectives as future physicians. Feng and Sajjad believe that physicians do far more than heal patients—the care that they provide affirms the humanity of marginalized populations. The practice of humanistic medicine shows patients that they matter.
“It’s crucial that our generation of medical trainees learns to provide compassionate and patient-centered care to this demographic. Accordingly, our project with the Visions residents has better attuned us to the nuances and joys of caring for individuals with disabilities,” Sajjad says. “We both wish to count people with disabilities among our future patients, and by bringing on our fellow medical students as volunteers, we can help prepare them for treating patients with disabilities as well.”
“We have found immense joy and satisfaction in working with the amazing residents at Visions,” Feng adds. “Engaging with them through teaching and recreation was something we looked forward to nearly every weekend. We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to give back to our community and plan to continue expanding this project for years to come.”