UChicago scholar exemplifies a commitment to community engagement through research, service, and teaching

May 20, 2021

Throughout her career, Sonia Oyola has cared for and supported some of Chicago’s most underserved communities. As Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at UChicago Medicine, she has worked at numerous community health centers and is also Director of the University of Chicago’s Pritzker’s School of Medicine Family Medicine Elective, where she guides medical students in developing additional skills and knowledge in the areas of prevention, lifestyle medicine, self-care, and communication to help them motivate and establish meaningful collaborations with patients. These diverse experiences have led Oyola’s research in a number of directions and even inspired her to launch a nonprofit organization that has supported survivors of domestic violence for more than a decade. 

Since 2018, Oyola has been affiliated with Heartland Health Centers, which aims to improve community wellbeing by providing accessible, high-quality health care. In 2013, she completed an integrative medicine fellowship through the University of Arizona, solidifying her love of mind/body medicine practices such as mindfulness meditation and breath work to relieve pain, stress, and suffering. Her broad interests have resulted in wide-ranging research on a variety of topics. At the University of Chicago, Oyola was the co-PI of a 2016 study that examined how comfortable and confident care providers were treating patients who had experienced sexual assault. The study determined that many providers lack confidence in this area, and Oyola helped create a pilot educational intervention for medical residents detailing how to navigate the process, including everything from questioning patients to completing a sexual assault kit. 

In a recent study on complementary medicine, Oyola assessed how adding yoga to an opioid recovery program affected patients’ overall quality of life. She also contributed to a national culinary medicine study at Tulane University focused on how food affects medical students’ attitudes when treating patients, as well as their own self-care. At the core, however, her work mainly focuses on domestic violence research. In the summer of 2019, Oyola served as the PI for a student-led study centering on how individuals’ personal experiences with trauma affect medical screenings. The study surveyed 95 care providers at institutions across the country to learn about their domestic violence screening practices: how often they screen, their comfort level while screening, and personal experiences with domestic violence.

"As a medical provider, you’re actually more likely to screen if you’ve been personally affected by domestic violence," Oyola explained. "It increases your awareness about this issue and need to talk about these topics."

Oyola credits her ongoing domestic violence research as the inspiration for launching a nonprofit organization. In 2009, she founded Be Alright, which developed a database of resources for domestic violence survivors and also helped convert Chicago-area domestic violence shelters into havens of healing. Along with providing ongoing support to eight Chicago shelters per year, Be Alright also supports individual survivors of domestic violence with goods and services.

Oyola’s diverse research interests directly correlate to her role guiding students through the Family Medicine Elective. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s students were unable to engage in the curriculum until June 2020, and the four-week clerkship evolved into a two-week elective to give students more flexibility and an opportunity to graduate on time. The two-week elective will continue for the coming academic year, but Oyola is hopeful that the students will have more robust educational experiences in primary care in 2022.

"We were blessed to be able to keep many core, unique, and helpful aspects of our clerkship in place—lifestyle medicine (particularly nutrition), end of life communication training, motivational interviewing etc.,” she said.  “No matter the field a student chooses, these communication skills will help them provide collaborative and compassionate care.”