Undergraduate Academic Affairs

February 17, 2022

Celebrating the 2020–21 Undergraduate Medalists

Undergraduate Academic Affairs

From the thousands of undergraduate students at the University of Washington, three are selected each year for the prestigious President’s Medalist Award.

Piper Coyner, Olivia Brandon and Catherine Chia are the medalists for 2020–21, selected by a committee for their high GPAs, rigor of classes and numbers of Honors courses. All three are students in the University Honors Program, completing the Interdisciplinary Honors track.

Each medalist has carved a unique path at the UW, but they’re united in their passion for their chosen areas of study, ranging from neuroscience to anthropology to film studies. They’re also dedicated to giving back to the community, in both their extracurricular activities and their post-graduation career plans.

The students will be recognized by University President Ana Mari Cauce and Provost Mark Richards at a special reception, where each recipient will receive their medal in front of family, friends and mentors.

Read on to learn how these exceptional students embody the Husky Spirit.


Piper Coyner, junior medalist

Majors: Near Eastern studies–languages and cultures; cinema and media studies
Hometown: Olalla, WA

Black and white photo of Piper Coyner

The moment Piper Coyner learned that the UW had a Near Eastern studies major, she knew she wanted to become a Husky. Since childhood, her dream had been to study the Middle East — and she was thrilled she could do it so close to home.

At the UW, Coyner has been able to dive into many aspects of Middle Eastern culture, history and language, studying Persian and Arabic. She has also discovered a second major in cinema and media studies, thanks to her involvement with the UW Film Club, where she leads a team of 20 writers. When she’s not exploring a canon of classic films or writing reviews, she’s an avid reader who enjoys contemporary fiction and history.

Whether focused on the screen or the pages of a book, Coyner takes inspiration from “stories of perseverance and self-sacrifice, of people caring deeply for others and making change in the world.” It’s with this model of making a difference that she hopes to attend law school after graduation.

For Coyner, who was also recognized in 2020 as a freshman medalist, this award is an important validation of her passion for and pursuit of the humanities.

“I often compare myself unfavorably to those in STEM and buy into the narrative that my work is not as important,” Coyner says. “This award shows me that’s not true — that students who study arts, cultures and languages are just as valued.”


Olivia Brandon, sophomore medalist

Majors: Neuroscience and public health–global health
Hometown: Seattle, WA

Black and white photo of Olivia Brandon

Olivia Brandon became fascinated with the study of human physiology during an introductory survey class — and that has shaped her UW journey.

Realizing her true passion, she packed her schedule with chemistry, biology and global health classes. She landed on neuroscience after learning about brain pathology as a research assistant in UW Medicine’s Neonatal Neuroscience Lab.

In her research role, Brandon works closely with UW faculty to help develop treatments for babies at risk for encephalopathy. “Being able to ask a scientific and medical question, create the database, extract the necessary variables, analyze the data and convey the information has sparked the scientist in me,” she says. Later this spring at the 2022 Pediatric Academic Societies medical conference, she plans to present a research project she spearheaded.

Inspired by her lab mentors and her physician parents, Brandon plans to attend medical school after graduation.

“I hope to become a physician who has an impact on improving people’s health, but I also want to be an advocate for improving equity in global and public health systems,” says Brandon, who is also majoring in public health–global health. During her first year at the UW, Brandon gave a TedX talk about the importance of addressing global issues like climate change.

As an animal lover, Brandon is also president of the UW equestrian team and has raised funds and volunteered for an equine rescue and rehabilitation center.


Catherine Chia, freshman medalist

Hometown: Redmond, WA
Majors: Biochemistry, neuroscience and anthropology

Black and white photo of Catherine Chia

Catherine Chia got a firsthand look at the UW’s Seattle campus — and its many opportunities — when her older brother became a Husky. That glimpse helped shape her decision to attend the UW.

With a goal of attending medical school, she found herself naturally drawn to studying biochemistry and neuroscience.

“I love the mechanistic nature of both subjects, where I can learn to look for sources of a disease from the tiniest mechanisms of the body,” explains Chia, who is balancing her two science majors with anthropology. That subject serves as “an important reminder that innovation and development should always be aimed at helping others.”

Outside the classroom, she’s an undergraduate research assistant in Prof. Jonathan Posner’s lab, which is developing a diagnostic test for hepatitis C. The supportive community of the lab has built Chia’s confidence as a scientist and made her feel more at home at the UW.

Chia’s volunteer work includes helping elementary school students develop reading skills, leading summertime science activities at the Pacific Science Center and mentoring her fellow students in the UW Honors Program. As a future physician, Chia hopes to improve people’s lives in a holistic way. She’s passionate about rectifying education disparities and plans to continue volunteering in learning spaces.

“Receiving this honor is not just for me,” Chia says, “but also for everyone who has been there for me along the way.”