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Reputation & Opportunity Inspire New Leader

Physician assistant student wellness director finds her place to influence positive change

Reputation matters. University of California San Diego has earned a reputation for innovative research and academic achievements. A place where ideas can be translated into solutions. Specifically, the School of Medicine is known for its integrated scientific curriculum, combining clinical medicine and medical science, with hands-on training focused on empathy and compassion.


“The Schools of Medicine’s track record for producing skilled, compassionate, and evidence-based practitioners really impressed me,” said Heather Gebauer, M.S., PA-C, director of learner success and wellness for the newly launched Atkinson Physician Assistant Education Program. “As a physician assistant (PA), I've worked with many physicians trained at UC San Diego. I’ve appreciated the high-quality education they received and the care they provide.”

While that reputation for combining clinical skills with compassionate care are what first attracted Gebauer to join the PA program, the opportunity to help shape a brand new program confirmed that she made the right decision to join the PA program’s founding team.

“The idea of bringing my personal experience and teaching expertise to the table in an environment with plenty of creative freedom was really appealing,” she said. “It felt like a unique opportunity to leave my mark and influence on how the program develops.”

The inaugural class of PA students began their studies on June 10. Gebauer’s role includes empowering the students with the tools and support necessary to navigate the challenges of their education while prioritizing their overall well-being. Ultimately, she hopes to enable the students to thrive both academically and personally.

“Numerous studies indicate that approximately 70 percent of physician assistant students will experience anxiety and depression during their rigorous, fast-paced and academically challenging training,” noted Gebauer. “While the program's inherent intensity cannot be entirely mitigated, we aim to establish a solid foundation for student wellness from the outset. Wellness is a highly personal matter, so our program offers a varied and personalized approach to wellness, catering to the personal, mental, physical and spiritual dimensions of student well-being.”

A “helper” at the core, Gebauer first pursued PA training to support and care for people.

“There's something really fulfilling about being there for patients during those tough, vulnerable moments and doing whatever I can to improve their situation,” she explained. “Whether it's delivering tough news with compassion, relief from their suffering or just a kind presence during a scary time, I find a lot of meaning in being able to help people when they need it most.”

A California native, when Gebauer is not working, she finds her own work-life balance through adrenaline inducing activities.

 “I'm an adrenaline junkie who lives for heart-pounding, high-octane adventures that really get my blood pumping,” she said. “Whether it's skydiving out of planes at dizzying heights, hunting down massive anacondas in the depths of the Venezuelan jungle or white-knuckle whitewater rafting down raging rapids, activities that involve daring feats and ever-present danger are what truly fill my cup.”

07-01-heather-gebauer-collage.jpg Heather Gebauer, M.S., PA-C, director of learner success and wellness for the newly launched Atkinson Physician Assistant Education Program is a self-described adrenaline junkie, shown here riding the rapids with her family.  Photos courtesy of Heather Gebauer.

Joyce Pritchett

Communications Specialist, UC San Diego School of Medicine