Two College of Medicine professors awarded UF’s highest faculty honor
Drs. Frank Bova and Sara Nixon named Distinguished Professors for leadership and lasting impact in their field
Aug. 26, 2022 — In recognition of their unparalleled work in medicine and decades of impactful mentorship and discovery, two professors from the University of Florida College of Medicine were named Distinguished Professors — the highest faculty honor at UF.
Frank Bova, Ph.D., the Albert E. and Birdie W. Einstein Fund professor of computer-assisted stereotactic neurosurgery within the Lillian S. Wells department of neurosurgery, and Sara J. Nixon, Ph.D., chief of addiction research and director of the neurocognitive laboratory in the department of psychiatry and director of the biobehavioral core of the UF Clinical and Translational Science Institute, were selected for the honor this year, along with five other faculty across campus.
They join just two former Distinguished Professors in the College of Medicine, and Nixon is the first woman among them.
“I am pleased to be honored, not because I am a woman, per se, but because my work as a scientist is being honored. I am humbled by the fact that this recognition may encourage other women in the STEM fields,” Nixon said. “I also hope it encourages aspiring scientists, regardless of gender, who are training in small state schools or who find themselves struggling to make ends meet like I did — but who are committed to making a difference in academic research. I’ve benefitted from multiple role models, and I hope I can serve as one of many for others.”
Nixon, an internationally renowned scientist in the field of alcohol and substance abuse, is one of the great female mentors at the College of Medicine. Her love for teaching and nurturing the next generation of researchers, from undergraduates through junior faculty, has resulted in the incredible statistic that every single one of the postdoctoral fellows she has mentored in her laboratory over the past decade has obtained a tenure-track or equivalent academic faculty position.
“Mentoring is probably the most important thing we do,” she said. “Our work won’t live on forever, but the people we train, train the next. It’s my privilege to try and help people engage and be involved.”
Carol Mathews, M.D., the interim chair of the department of psychiatry and Brooke professor of psychiatry, said she was thrilled to learn Nixon was chosen as the college’s first female Distinguished Professor.
“Sara Jo is a rockstar; To see her get this honor is really important,” Mathews said. “She’s a role model for other women in the field, and we absolutely celebrate that. This also encourages us to think about the other outstanding women in the College of Medicine who should be put forward.”
Nixon has been a change-maker in her field, Mathews said, since her research brought widespread attention to the question of whether there are differences in alcohol abuse between genders. And her expertise has helped lead studies of national importance, such as documenting psychiatric symptoms at all community levels after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and serving as co-principal investigator on the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development℠ Study (ABCD Study®) at UF, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health ever conducted in the United States.
Nixon said she enjoys getting to learn something new every day in her work — a feeling she has had since she was a young girl who fell in love with school. She did not always imagine herself as a scientist, however. Nixon grew up playing the oboe, and for a time, she yearned to become a professional musician. But now, after decades of study on the human brain, she hopes to be remembered for creating a work atmosphere and approach to science that is accepting but also demanding, where people feel they have been challenged to think differently.
And she hopes her students and colleagues think she is funny, too.
“If we don’t see the humor in it, life gets awfully heavy,” Nixon said.
Bova has worked in the College of Medicine ever since graduating from UF in 1977 with a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering sciences and specialty in medical physics. He was also chosen for Distinguished Professor based on his world-changing research and impressive career as an educator.
Bova holds 14 patents, all developed at UF since 1992. He was part of a team of faculty, staff and students at the university who created the design and algorithms for the first medical linear accelerator, a tool that adapted and refined what was then a groundbreaking but highly expensive radiation therapy device to a more accessible, efficient and precise technology for radiosurgery. The group’s work allowed for hundreds of cancer patients to be treated each day around the globe and impacted millions of lives. Their designs are the basis for all medical linear accelerators to this day.
“I cannot think of anyone more deserving of such an honor,” said Brian Hoh, M.D., M.B.A., chair and James and Brigitte Marino Family professor of the Lillian S. Wells department of neurosurgery. “Dr. Bova is truly one of the most exceptional individuals in his field and in history. He is a world-class colleague and trusted friend. We are extremely fortunate to have him at UF.”
Bova said receiving the Distinguished Professor distinction was “a very nice surprise.” But he wished all the members of the radiosurgery team were recognized, not just himself.
“None of us do this on our own — everything I did was part of a team effort,” he said. “But it does feel good to realize people who truly know you feel you’ve made a contribution.”
Bova said if you ask his mother, he has always been a fix-it guy. When he was 3 years old, she found him in the basement with tools trying to repair his first broken phonograph. And like many scientists, he describes himself as a “research junkie.”
“You put a problem in front of us, and we just can’t help ourselves,” he said.
But it’s the people he works with who really make his job fun. Bova has trained over 150 residents and graduate students at UF. And alongside his peers, he is adapting many of the same principles from the linear accelerator for use in the operating room and veterinary clinic for deep brain stimulation and large animal imaging.
“I always say I have the best job in the world,” Bova said. “Being able to collaborate and have patients who come here leave with successful outcomes — it just feels good to be able to be part of the team.”
Distinguished Professors, like Bova and Nixon, are invited to give lectures to the UF Faculty Senate after their selection. Details can be found on the UF Faculty Senate website once confirmed. Guidelines and information about the award nominations are also available online.