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picture of madeline leaning against a tree smiling
Madeline Bright of the College of Biological Sciences has been named the 2021 University Medalist as the top graduating senior at UC Davis. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

NPB Major Madeline Bright Awarded University Medal

by Julia Ann Easley


Questions Drive Top UC Davis Graduate

Will Pursue Career in Medical Research


When Madeline Bright was young, she was told she asked a lot of questions.

Today that same curiosity is leading her toward a career in medical research where she hopes to find life-saving answers.

The resident of Sunnyvale, California, will be honored as the top graduating senior at the University of California, Davis, during its virtual graduation celebration, available online beginning Friday, June 11. Like hundreds of other graduates this commencement season, the neurobiology, physiology and behavior major will march in one of the in-person processionals June 10 to 13.

The University Medal is awarded for excellence in undergraduate studies, outstanding community service, and the promise of future scholarship and contributions to society. The winner receives a plaque and $2,000.

Bright said the award affirms the direction she’s chosen for her career. “Because it’s such an important life decision, it’s nice to be recognized by others,” she said. “It’s nice there are people who believe I will make a difference.”

Bright has not only built an outstanding academic record at UC Davis, but she has also been a research assistant, worked as a tutor, studied abroad in Ireland, won recognition for presentations at academic conferences and served her community.

Julin Maloof, professor and chair of the College of Biological Sciences’ committee that nominated Bright for the award, said she is driven to exceptional achievements by a passionate desire to help others and to make the world a better place.

“She has thought carefully about how to contribute to human well-being … and there is no question that she will make a difference!” he wrote in a letter of recommendation.

CEREMONIES: Read about the in-person and virtual commencements being held this week.

Influences toward medicine and research

As a child, Bright’s positive interactions with doctors made her want to become one, she said. Her interest in oncology grew as she saw one of her teachers at Homestead High School in Cupertino receive chemotherapy. “For me it was that transformation, her personal growth and seeing her on the other side,” Bright said.

In a chemistry class in her first quarter at UC Davis, a teaching assistant ignited Bright’s fascination with research when he explained how research changes medicine. “The thought of contributing to a constantly evolving field and answering questions that no one else can, or has even thought of, is exhilarating,” she said.


picture of madeline in protective gear in a scientific lab
Since her freshman year, Madeline Bright has worked in Professor Sheila David's lab at UC Davis. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Since her freshman year, Madeline Bright has worked in Professor Sheila David's lab at UC Davis. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

By the winter quarter of her freshman year, Bright began as a research assistant in Professor Sheila David’s lab, where she manipulates the building blocks of DNA to understand how repair enzymes recognize and repair cell damage.

David said Bright has tremendous potential as a researcher and scholar. “I suspect that she will have a significant impact on the advancement of cancer research,” she said.

Bright won the Francesca Miller Undergraduate Research Award in 2019 to support full-time summer research in chemistry and other awards for research presentations at academic conferences. She also received the Marion Freeborn Scholarship for juniors who demonstrate academic achievement, community service and leadership skills.

Active in community service


picture of madeline pushing an elderly man in a wheel chair
A wheelchair assistant, Madeline Bright helps Andre Vanacore get where he needs to be at the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center. (Kristi Morales-Scott)

A wheelchair assistant, Madeline Bright helps Andre Vanacore get where he needs to be at the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center. (Kristi Morales-Scott)

Bright’s volunteer work includes service at the student-run Willow Clinic of Sacramento, which provides medical and mental health services for people without stable housing.

Bright revamped  Willow’s website and, for its obstetric and gynecological clinic, led initiatives to develop pamphlets on common health topics and to strengthen connections with other UC Davis organizations addressing women’s health.

Recently, she started volunteering as a wheelchair assistant at the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center and helping Sacramento Street Medicine hand out supplies to the unsheltered.

Looking ahead

“My understanding of research, medicine, who I am and who I want to be has evolved through my time at UC Davis,” Bright said.

She plans to pursue advanced studies in a joint medical and doctoral program and then work in an academic hospital doing research and clinical work. In addition to cancer, her interests include women’s health, stress physiology and efforts to better represent diverse populations in medical research. 

As Bright applies for admission to medical school, she plans to continue tutoring at UC Davis over the summer and seek employment as a medical scribe.

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