The U.S. Public Health Service Physician Professional Advisory Committee awarded Dakota, a fourth-year medical student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM), with a 2021 Excellence in Public Health Award.

The prestigious national award recognizes medical students who are public health champions, helping to address public health concerns in their community.

Lee Learman, dean of VTCSOM, nominated Buhrman. “By building bridges between community organizations, health care professionals, and social networks, Dakota has helped to problem solve and educate people in ways that have the potential to narrow health disparities,” Learman said.

In particular, Buhrman has focused much of her efforts on health disparities, particularly for refugees and immigrants. “One of my biggest passions that is woven into my medical career is closing equity gaps, especially centered around the refugee and immigrant communities here in Roanoke,” Buhrman said. “I’ve been fortunate there are so many opportunities for students to stay involved if you are able and willing.”

Buhrman volunteers with the Roanoke Refugee Partnership and is a co-founder of the Refugee and Immigrant Medicine Association (RIMA) at the medical school. She is also a member of Asylum Seeker Support Group Roanoke, a group formed to distribute resources equitably to families seeking asylum. Her main role is to help families access medical and dental care.

At the medical school, she has held leadership positions in the Pediatric Student Interest Group and was a student delegate to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Those roles piqued her interest in childhood oral health that led her to organize the Oral Health Coalition of Roanoke. In addition, she has volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Carilion Children’s Family Camp Weekend, and at the Bradley Free Clinic.

While already committed to supporting vulnerable populations, she notes that she felt even more driven after meeting a pediatric patient during an international clinic night at Bradley Free Clinic. An 8-year-old boy, whose family had taken asylum in the United States from Honduras, was complaining of knee pain. “I was trying to figure out what could cause this when he told me he had walked here all the way from Honduras. I will never forget this,” Buhrman said. “There are so many stories like that, just seeing how resilient a lot of these patients are. They have gone through so much, finally think they're safe, and it's going to be an easier life. That’s often not the case. For me, once I was meeting these patients, I can't not help them now.”

Buhrman found another way to contribute to public health when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact the United States. Last March, her class entered what was supposed to be the final months of their third-year clinical clerkship rotations, when medical students rotate through all of the major specialties in the hospital and outpatient clinics. They were suddenly pulled out of those in-person learning experiences and switched to virtual until it was safe to return.

“I’m someone who can’t sit still,” Buhrman said. “I wondered what I was going to do over the next few weeks, not knowing how long it would really be. I wanted to be helpful.”

She heard about the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps through a friend and applied. The volunteer program is run through the Virginia Department of Health to have volunteers ready and able to help respond to public health emergencies. Buhrman got to work, helping collect and deliver personal protective equipment to local health providers, serving as a contact tracer to manage outbreaks, volunteering at COVID-19 testing events, and more. She also encouraged other medical students to volunteer.

“I was seeing public health in action, all of the things I had been learning and trained for, in real life,” Buhrman said.

While public health needs can be large with complex solutions, Buhrman focuses on what she can do to affect change, primarily through developing relationships. “I am a big proponent of grassroots movements. I think that there's a lot of work you can do with big policies on a national level, but I definitely saw what the voice of a medical student can do that really impacted me to want to continue to do this work. That's where I think you see the change is when you're working in these communities,” Buhrman said.

One of her nominators, Cynthia Morrow, echoed that sentiment. “Dakota has highlighted the importance of grassroots education, awareness of the complex social and political influences impacting public health practices, particularly those negatively impacting underserved communities, and the role of volunteerism in those communities,” said Morrow, co-leader of the health systems science and interprofessional practice domain at VTCSOM and director for the Virginia Department of Health’s Roanoke and Alleghany Health District.

Buhrman will graduate from VTCSOM in May and is headed to her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for residency in pediatrics. She plans to continue prioritizing public health work and advocacy during and after residency. “I am humbled by this award and thankful to the community of Roanoke that enabled me to pursue so much here,” Buhrman said.

“We are proud of the contributions Dakota has made in our community in the four short years she has called Roanoke home,” said Aubrey Knight, senior dean for student affairs at VTCSOM. “As Dakota heads off to residency, I believe she will bring a perspective grounded in social justice and will honorably serve her patients, peers, other professional colleagues, her institution, and ultimately the community in which she lives.”