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Member Spotlights

We are pleased to shine a spotlight on our outstanding alumni and student members!


Maria Iliakova, MD'16

Alumni Member

Dr. Maria Iliakova is a bariatric and general surgeon. She is passionate about enabling her patients to reach their goals through bariatric care. To specialize in bariatric surgery, she completed Fellowship in Minimally Invasive and Bariatric Surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey after finishing General Surgery Residency at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. She earned her medical degree at the University of Kansas. Prior to medical school, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in proteomics at the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, and a Master's of Science degree in Biochemistry at Georgetown University. Dr. Iliakova is a member of the American College of Surgeons, the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons, the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, and the American Medical Association. She lives in Kansas City with her dog and is starting a private practice in Overland Park, KS.


Why are you proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association?
The organization focuses on supporting the medical school, developing meaningful relationships with the community and directions for medical education ahead. Feel engaged and involved in this valuable organization.

Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
1. The best medical education + opportunity
2. Rural health focus
3. Attention to community

What is your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
Jaydoc Clinic: Working with Spanish-speaking patients, especially in diabetic clinic. Made me feel that helping people reach care they would have trouble reaching otherwise. This resonates throughout our healthcare system and was a blast to get to deliver quality care without worrying about access barriers.

Who is your favorite professor or mentor and why?
Dean Mark Meyer, MD'89. He saw something in me worth supporting when I needed it. His advice to focus made a fundamental change in my life to set and reach goals even through a difficult time. He enabled me to become a doctor and surgeon. I'm grateful for the vision and grace and hope to share this with others throughout my medical career.

What was your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
How bodies can go through surgery and survive. Every time I operate, it still blows my mind that we can safely protect people and help treat and heal them with our hands and minds through surgery. Seeing this as a medical student gave me awe of what could be done already and inspired me to think of what we could achieve in the future.

What advice do you have for future students?
Hang in there and focus. Days are long, but years are short. You are doing something worthwhile that is very needed by your community. Do not forget that.


Theresa Jackson, BS'93

Alumni Member

Theresa Jackson currently lives in Overland Park, Kansas, and is a 1983 graduate of the Health Information Management (HIM) program at the KU School of Health Professions. She has worked in the HIM Department at the University of Kansas Health System her entire career (40+ years). She is currently the System Director at the University of Kansas Health System. Theresa also serves on the School of Health Professions Board of Advocates, as well as served for many years on the HIM KUMC Advisory Board.


Why are you proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association?
I am proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association due to a strong sense of belonging and community, many great memories, and the great education and opportunities provided.

Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
Because of its great reputation for quality education. Also, I’ve been a Jayhawk for life!

What is your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
We had 14 students in our graduating class, and we were truly like family. I still keep in contact with several members of our class after 40 years. (And it seems like yesterday!)

Who is your favorite professor or mentor and why?
Sue Malone, Chairman of HIM, Alice Junghans, and Karen Sheffield (both instructors). They all were great instructors, and believed in me and what I could accomplish.

What was your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
How important it is to be FLEXIBLE in all you do! And I love the quote, “You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to it.”

What advice do you have for future students?
1. Never give up!
2. Reach for the stars!
3. Tomorrow is a new day!


Tracie Lewis, BS'00

Life Member

Tracie grew up in Concordia, KS, and completed an undergraduate degree in microbiology on the Lawrence campus before coming to KU Medical Center and completing an undergraduate degree in clinical laboratory science in 2000. In 2013, she completed a master's in health care leadership from Friends University. She currently is part of the cellular processing lab and the blood and marrow transplant team at the University of Kansas Health System after spending 22 years in microbiology as both a tech and in management roles.


Why are you proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association?
I love being able to give back and support the university, students, faculty and staff.

Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
KUMC had the program that I was interested in and I knew a few people who had completed it. It was "close" to home and had a great scholarship.

What is your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
I have two. First, my classmates (who soon became good friends) and I spending late nights studying in the student center. Second, a weeklong "rural practicum" where you spent a week at a rural location shadowing a medical technologist. My location was in western Kansas, where I not only got plenty of hands-on experience in the lab but also in X-ray and phlebotomy. An added benefit was that I was able to spend that week at my grandmother’s.

Who is your favorite professor or mentor and why?
I don't have one. It is more of a collective; the instructors for the program challenged and prepared us for the career we would soon have and the exam at the end of the program. If you could pass that, boards would be a breeze!

What is your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
The application of what we had been learning in class. It was more meaningful as we went through clinical rotations to see theory in practice and the impact of what happens in the lab to the patient.

What advice do you have for future students?
Remember that you cannot study and focus all the time. You need to take time to be with family and friends and do the other things you love. You will be a better student, person, and healthcare professional.


Brad Marples, MD'83

Life Member

Dr. Brad Marples graduated from the KU School of Medicine in 1983. He practiced primary care Internal Medicine with the Cotton-O’Neil Clinic for 17 years. In 1995, with the merger of Cotton-O’Neil and Stormont Vail, he became actively involved in the development of our electronic medical record and that gradually became a full-time job starting in 2004. Brad is now retired and enjoys collecting and repairing classic toy trains.


Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
My time at KU and the University of Kansas Medical Center was the best time of my life. I think that I went to KU because my older brother chose to go there after looking at some other universities.

What is your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
So many wonderful memories and friendships were made. My wife, Aileen (MD'83) and I had freshman chemistry together and that is when she first caught my eye. It wasn't until the third year of medical school however that we dated. We were married at the end of our senior year. We signed in the Topeka Program as Internal Medicine residents rather than go through the then quite new couples match.

Who is your favorite professor or mentor and why?
Dr. Norton Greenberger, who was the chairman of Internal Medicine is the one that I admire the most from those years. I had the great privilege of working as a Chief Resident with Dr. Greenberger. His teaching and knowledge made every minute of that time valuable.

What is your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
The thing that I learned at KUMC that helped me through my entire career was to simply always do the right thing for the patient. As my career changed, I added the goal of always doing what would make it easier for all the doctors to do the right thing for their patients. Every time a question was brought to me about what should be done, the answer was simple. Do the right thing for the patient. It was never about money or taking the easy way out.

What advice do you have for future students?
Same as the question above. That is what I would try to tell anyone working in the medical field. I have talked to medical students at the University of Missouri School of Medicine every few months about addiction and recovery for over 30 years. I had to learn to not let the job consume all my time and I had to learn to have a hobby and I guess I learned that one pretty well.


Fred Neis, MS’97, BSN’93, RN, CEN, FACHE, FAEN

Life Member

Fred is a Senior Partner in Korn Ferry’s healthcare advisory practice, a dad to a future Jayhawk, and an enthusiast for healthcare change. He leads efforts to assess, design, and implement holistic workforce solutions. He has held clinical and leadership positions within health systems, payers, consulting, and technology companies. Additionally, Fred is active at local and national levels as an author, journal peer reviewer, advisory committee member, and conference speaker to help shape policy, practice, and leadership performance. Along the way, he volunteers for a few organizations and has led medical mission trips to Kenya.


Why are you proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association?
Being part of a network of fellow Jayhawks who are on a mission to care for people and build healthy communities. The KU School of Nursing gave me an incredible foundation to build on for a really fun career. I’d like to be able to give back, share with other Jayhawks, and help to build the future of the medical center and School of Nursing.

Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
My mom is a graduate of the KU School of Nursing. I started my career as a firefighter/paramedic. Becoming a nurse was a logical next step and has provided me with an amazing career path. One that has been very unexpected and rewarding. Through a BSN and a MS in Nursing Administration, I got a good blend of clinical and business concepts I apply every day in my work. It’s also opened doors for career opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise been qualified for consideration.

What is your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
Hard to pin it to one. Jimmy’s Jigger after finals, the clinical lab in the basement of Murphy, I could go on.

Who is your favorite professor or mentor and why?
She wasn’t my professor or mentor. Janet Pierce – just so smart.

What is your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
That I do like coffee and night shifts aren’t for me.

What advice do you have for future students?
Build and maintain a network!!! Joining and participating in the KU Nurses Alumni Association is one way. A lifetime membership is a great graduation gift. Also, and equally as important is to be a constant learner. From your colleagues, mentors, professional organizations, and even other industries.


Morgan Bretches, MPH'23

Student Member

Morgan received her Master of Public Health degree from the KU School of Medicine-Wichita in the summer 2023. She is currently a medical student at the Wichita campus, slated to graduate in 2027. Eliminating unnecessary barriers and creating equity within health is her true passion, and her long-term goals include being an all-encompassing primary care physician that incorporates community health and policy advocacy for the medically underserved in Kansas.


Why are you proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association?
I am a proud member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association because of the extensive networking, events, sense of community, and the free coffee during finals weeks!

Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
I chose to attend KU Medical Center (KUMC) in order to start my professional career as a young public health professional and aspiring primary care physician under the guidance of existing mentors and close relationships with community organizations and partners for comprehensive personal and professional growth.

What has been your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
My favorite memory during my time at KUMC was participating in the Discover KU Health Day on October 11, 2022. This event hosted KC Metro high school students and demonstrated what various careers in healthcare look like. Seeing the kids attempt to intubate a training manikin, set PRs on the grip strength device, and work as a team to address a public health crisis is something I will always cherish and be grateful that I was able to experience. 

Who is your favorite professor or mentor and why?
I am not self-made and have been very fortunate to experience the absolute humility and dedication that all KUMC faculty members embody to their students; therefore, it is impossible for me to pick one professor/mentor. Drs. Tiffany Schwasinger-Schmidt, MD’14, R’17, Kari Nilsen, Shang-You Yang, Samuel Ofei-Dodoo, John Stanford, Lisa Sanderson Cox, Christina Pacheco, MPH'16, Daniel Warren, MD'09, and many others have all been critical in my personal and professional development in various ways and at various, yet critical, points in time. 

What has been your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
My favorite thing I have learned in school is a derivative of a Winston Churchill quote: Mistakes are not fatal, and failure is not final; you simply must begin again. From five IRB protocol attempts to bombed exams, I think it is important to give yourself grace while remaining steady in chasing your dreams.

What advice do you have for future students?
My biggest piece of advice, which I definitely learned too late, is to prioritize personal wellness by taking time for the people and things that make you happy. Graduate school is like a marathon, and no one runs a marathon without stopping at the hydration stations!


Darshan Deole, DPT'11

Alumni Member

Dr. Darshan Deole grew up in Pittsburg, Kansas. He received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS, and his Doctor of Physical Therapy from the KU School of Health Professions in 2001. Darshan started with SERC Physical Therapy after graduation and has progressed through his professional career, from a staff clinician to his current role as a Regional Director. He currently serves on the KU Health Professions Alumni Board.

Why are you proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association?
Given the positive experience I had at the KU Medical Center (KUMC) and the opportunities it provided me after graduation, I felt an intrinsic need to support and give back to the school in some capacity. Being a member and being on the Health Professionals Alumni board allows me to do just that.

Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
I chose KUMC based on its academic reputation and geographic location. I also appreciated and valued my interactions with some of the faculty during the application process.

What is your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
Getting together with my class to unwind and catch up after a big test.

Who is your favorite professor or mentor and why?
Everyone on the faculty was great! But if I had to pick one, I would say: Stephen D. Jernigan, PhD'11, PT'01, FNAP, current director of the physical therapy doctoral degree program. His positive nature, willingness to impart his knowledge and ability to guide students was noticed by not only me but also every other student in our class.

What is your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
Knowing that any issue/problem (clinical diagnosis, patient presentation etc) has multiple pathways (interventions, treatments) to get to a positive resolution, and to not be afraid to try something different or new.

What advice do you have for future students?
Don't lose sight of your long-term goals while focusing on the details at hand. Your time in any graduate program will go by quickly, so be intentional in making a connection with those around you (classmates, faculty, etc), as those relationships will aid you in the future.


Jennifer Bacani McKenney, MD'06

Life Member

Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney was born and raised in Fredonia, Kansas, the same community where she now practices medicine alongside her father who has been a general surgeon there for 44 years. As a family physician and owner of Fredonia Family Care, she gets to work with two other amazing physicians and an APRN, as well as an incredible clinic staff. Jennifer graduated in 2006 from the KU School of Medicine and completed her family medicine residency at Via Christi Family Medicine Residency in Wichita in 2009. She is the Associate Dean for Rural Medical Education at KU School of Medicine in Kansas City. She has also served as the Wilson county health officer for the last 12 years. Jennifer currently serves on KU Medical Alumni Board and will be the president in 2024. Additionally, she is the president and co-founder of The Remote Scribe Company as well as the founder and CEO of the Oasis Medical Spa. She is the immediate past President of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians and is on the board of the Kansas Health Foundation. She has served on the USD 484 school board for the last eight years, serving as president for two of those years.

Why are you proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association?
I am proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center alumni Association for a couple of reasons. Being in medical school was such a significant and meaningful part of my life and the lives of my colleagues, so staying connected to the school through the Alumni Association helps me to feel as though I am still part of such a great institution. Also, I know that the Alumni Association does great things to help medical students have an incredible education, especially through the day Jaydoc clinic and through efforts to recruit and retain excellent faculty!

Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
I, like many others, looked at other schools around the country but couldn't help but feel the “homey vibe” of KU Medical Center. I love Kansas for not only its kindness but also its strength, which is also what I found at the medical center.

What is been your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
I don’t know that I should share my very very favorite memories from the medical center because my colleagues and I enjoyed our time there way too much while getting an excellent education. But one of my favorite memories is spending time after hours in the dissection lab — sometimes with pranks, sometimes with snacks, but always with great friends with similar goals.

Who is your favorite professor or mentor and why?
My favorite mentor is Allen Greiner, MD'95, MPH'00, who always taught us about medicine from a real-life perspective. As we were entrenched in books and tests, he made becoming a doctor meaningful and relevant. He helped us to realize that beyond the grades and endless studying was a greater calling to help people. He has taught us that it's as important to help people through public health, advocacy, and creating systemic change as it is to help people in our exam rooms. He continues to inspire his colleagues and medical students every day.

What is your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
I would love to say that the favorite thing I learned in med school was the Krebs cycle or the function of the tubules of the kidneys. But the favorite thing I actually learned was that there are like-minded individuals who will always be there to support you through life's challenges, whether faculty, fellow students, and now my colleagues.

What advice do you have for future students?
It's all worth it! I’m pretty sure you question yourself every single day of medical school while you’re studying and taking tests, sometimes crying, sometimes celebrating. But being able to be a physician and play such a meaningful role in other people's lives is absolutely worth every second of early mornings in the hospital and heads buried in textbooks.


Nidhi Patel, MD'23

Alumni Member

Nidhi is from Olathe, KS, and went to the University of Kansas for her undergrad. She is a recent graduate from the KU School of Medicine.




Why are you proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association?
The KU Medical Center Alumni Association is a great group where we celebrate individuals who have graduated and those who are going to graduate! KU Medical Center (KUMC) alumni have made great contributions to communities across the United States and internationally, and this group allows us to recognize that!

Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
I chose KUMC because it is close to my family and I cannot imagine being away from them. Plus, their primary care program is one of the best!

What is your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
My favorite memory of KUMC was my White Coat Ceremony Day! It was an entire day of celebration with family, friends, and future colleagues!

Who is your favorite professor or mentor and why?
My favorite mentor has been Dr. Denise Zwahlen! She has been with me for most of medical school. When I am stressed or have important decisions to make, she is the first person I go to, and she gives me great advice. She makes me feel great afterward. She's been very supportive throughout my journey, and I cannot thank her enough!

What is your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
My favorite thing that I have learned while in school is to always keep time for myself. There was always something for me to do, so it was very important that I put my physical and mental well-being first. I learned this the hard way, but it has made me so much happier throughout school.

What advice do you have for future students?
Do not be afraid to ask for help. The staff and faculty are here for you whatever you may need!


Dylan Severson, DNP’22, BSN’17, APRN, FNP‐BC

Alumni Member

Dr. Dylan Severson earned their Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree in a family nurse practitioner program from the KU School of Nursing in May 2022 and obtained their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree in May 2017. As a board-certified family nurse practitioner, they work as an advanced practice provider at a community health center called Family Health Care, Inc. (FHC). FHC is a nonprofit FQHC-designated clinic in Wyandotte County that seeks to increase access to healthcare for vulnerable communities in the Greater KC Metropolitan area. Although Dylan provides primary care to all types of patients across the lifespan, their passion and areas of expertise entail caring for patients living with HIV, sexual health, and providing gender-affirming health care for trans and gender-diverse people. Dylan looks forward to growing more in their role as a provider as well as continuing to collaborate on meaningful educational projects with the KU School of Nursing!

Why are you proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association?
I think that my membership with the KU Medical Center Alumni Association is personally important to me because it is one way that I hold myself accountable to maintaining a relationship with my dear alma mater. I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the institution of KU Medical Center (KUMC), and especially the faculty and staff at KU School of Nursing; this campus is the place that cultivated and instilled in me unwavering love and dedication to my profession and patients. As a member of the Alumni Association, I am afforded the opportunity to stay informed and connected with the university that made me the health care professional and person that I am today!

Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
I chose to attend KUMC because I wanted to be surrounded by a passionate, diverse, and inclusive community of learners and educators; I desired to be immersed in a culture of excellence that pursues the highest quality of care for patients. I aspire to be a champion in my profession for my patients, and I knew KUMC would be an important catalyst to achieving my greatest hopes and dreams.

What is your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
One of my favorite memories was working together with the KUMC Pride Month Planning Committee to invite Dominique Jackson from the critically acclaimed TV series, Pose, to deliver a keynote presentation to students, faculty, and staff. I was humbled, proud, and, honestly, a little nervous to have the privilege and opportunity to provide introductory remarks for such an awe-inspiring public figure like Dominique Jackson at this KUMC Pride Month event.

Who was your favorite professor or mentor and why?
A few of my favorite mentors at KUMC were Karen Trees, DNP'11, MS'96, BSN'87, and Kesa Herlihy, PhD'17, BSN'08, because they never stopped believing in me. My light shines brighter because of them!

What was your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
One of the best things I learned while in school was how to prioritize myself and set boundaries between my personal and professional life. I learned that I need to take better care of myself and that I need to be kinder to myself. I learned that I must fill my own cup up first so that it may overflow and then be shared with others, including my patients. I learned that profoundly loving myself allows me to give love more abundantly to others.

What advice do you have for future students?
Do not forget to be happy on your way to “happy.” Do not wait until you passed the next exam or until the end of the semester or until you graduate to find peace and joy in every day.


Valissa Witmer, BSN'82

Alumni Member

Valissa hails from Phillipsburg, KS, and currently lives in Phoenix, AZ. She received her BSN in 1982 from the KU School of Nursing and was the Co-President of her class. After graduating, Valissa worked at many hospitals, public and private throughout the KC Metro from 1982-1996. From 1985-1996, she was actively involved with volunteering for HIV/AIDS organizations. In 1991, she received her MA in counseling from UMKC and was a therapist in private practice in Kansas City for 5 years before moving to Phoenix in 1996. Her therapy practice specialties were in trauma-informed care, and chronic/terminal health issues. After moving to Phoenix, she worked at a large Residential Adolescent Treatment Center, was a Hospice RN, and later worked at the Veteran's Administration before retiring in July 2021.

Why are you proud to be a member of the KU Medical Center Alumni Association?
I have always believed in paying it forward and giving back was part of my upbringing in rural Kansas. As the Co-President of my class, I attended lots of meetings and served on multiple committees, and got to know the instructors in a much different way than my peers. When Rita Clifford, PhD'81, BSN'62, retired and she and her husband started their scholarship, I immediately started giving to their fund on a yearly basis. I had many wonderful visits in Phoenix from KU Endowment and am looking to work to fund a scholarship as well for nursing students who work in mental health.

Why did you choose to attend KU Medical Center?
I come from a long line of Jayhawks! My dad graduated from the KU School of Pharmacy in 1949. Nursing was a calling, not a job or career for me. I never considered going anywhere but KU!

What is your favorite memory during your time at KU Medical Center?
I have lots of wonderful memories from my time at KU Medical Center (KUMC). I remember studying at KUMC late into the night for exams with a group of fellow students and deciding to drive thru a snowstorm to Lawrence at about 2:30 a.m. to go get Joe's Doughnuts! I remember getting into my car late on a snowy night of studying to sit frozen in more ways than one on the night John Lennon died. Too many fun times at Jimmie's Jigger including the Law School/Nursing School mixers. And the best memory was the tight, cohesive fun clinical group in Mental Health led by instructor Sandy Tweed, BSN'65, and our infamous "Hat Party" at the end of the semester!

Who was your favorite professor or mentor and why?
I pretty much lived on the 4th floor of the School of Nursing building hanging out, talking to all of the mental health instructors: Sandy Tweed, BSN'65, Mary Flood, Susie Shupe, MN'78, BSN'71, Janice Koch, Marj Wirthman and Maisie Kaishka who taught me guided imagery that changed my life due to being diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and choosing not to take pain meds. I have taught this to patients, families, friends, coworkers, and at conferences since 1980. Also, Hester Thurston, BSN'43, Rita Clifford, PhD'81, BSN'62, Sandy Hanson, BSN'58 and last but not least, my favorite non-nursing instructor of pharmacology, Thomas Pazdernik, PhD'71.

What was your favorite thing you've learned while in school and why?
Being present with each person you serve is the most important thing you bring. Your empathy, compassion and listening to what is not being said will not save everyone but it will provide what is needed for each individual healing, including dying. Nursing is the ART and the science. We are the ones there 24/7/365.

What advice do you have for future students?
1. One of the most important things you need to practice is learning to balance giving and receiving. Good self-care is worth every bit as much as the paycheck you receive. Set good boundaries.
2. You will never know everything you think you need to know. Just keep learning what you can.
3. Your role is the patient advocate. Many doctors and providers will not like or approve of this, do it anyway.
4. Ask for your own needs to be met first, from your supervisors, administrators, providers, family and friends. You can not Give from a place of emptiness.


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