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Laramie Physician Credits UW, Family for Success

January 11, 2017
woman in scrubs standing at counter
Kim Westbrook

Taking the easy path through her education wasn’t ever an option for Kim Westbrook.

After spending four and a half years earning an engineering degree from the University of Wyoming, she had an eye on a new challenge: earning a medical degree. That decision translated to four more years of school and an additional four years of residency.

“My transition to medical school was one of the most difficult things I have experienced,” she says.

Westbrook, whose maiden name is Nicholas, graduated from the UW College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) with a chemical engineering degree, with a biomedical emphasis, along with a minor in Spanish in December 2005.

She attended medical school at the University of Washington through the UW medical program partnership, WWAMI. She graduated in 2010 and completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., in July 2014. After moving back to her hometown of Laramie, she began working at Laramie Physicians for Women and Children in August 2014.

Just four years after earning her engineering degree, she walked away with a medical degree. Needless to say, it wasn’t a cakewalk.

“After multiple years of studying engineering, where you can answer a single question with multiple pages of work, it was difficult to take multiple-choice exams again,” Westbrook says. “The type of learning was very different in medical school and involved more memorization than problem-solving. However, the work ethic I developed during my engineering degree was invaluable for my medical training.”

She showed signs of high achievement from the very beginning. She is the only CEAS student ever to be named as the college’s outstanding freshman, sophomore and junior. As a senior, she was named the Wyoming Engineering Society Student Engineer of the Year, given by the practicing engineers in the state.

Westbrook’s efforts were noticed by Susan McCormack, who worked in the college’s Center for Student Success and Career Services. She points to one particular reason for Westbrook’s success in crossing over from engineering to medicine.

“The obvious quality that comes to mind is problem-solving. That’s what engineers and doctors do. They sift through all the information and come up with a solution,” McCormack says. “The massive amount of studying you do as an engineering student would definitely prepare her for the long hours of the medical school study grind. Good study habits never are wasted.

“As for her drive to be ‘great’ -- I doubt it was ever that. It was more of a drive to serve society. The academic honors were incidental. She really is that intelligent.”

Westbrook has used her engineering background as a springboard, even pointing to the significant workload associated with coursework as a beneficial learning tool.

“The work ethic I developed during my engineering degree has been the greatest asset to my current professional career,” she says.

Tom Parish, head of the Department of Atmospheric Science, was quite familiar with the family, having taught two of her brothers before having Westbrook in a statics class in 2002.

“Of course, she got an ‘A’ and was a top performer. Kim was a special student -- very bright, organized, inquisitive, hard-working and driven to succeed,” Parish says. “She cared about her classes and went beyond what it took to merely do well. She obviously had a plan, lots of skill and dedication.

“I remember she would come to my office and ask questions that were far more involved than those I typically get from students. She had an interest in learning, and she impressed me so much by getting a 100 on the first exam,” he adds. “No one gets a perfect score on those exams -- not even me. It came as no surprise to me that she got into medical school.”

Oftentimes, the Engineering Building on the UW campus felt like home to Westbrook. Not only did she spend hours studying and attending classes, but she also saw some familiar faces. She has three brothers who also earned engineering degrees from UW.

“My family is truly the ‘poster family’ for the College of Engineering at UW,” Westbrook says. “We have demonstrated that an engineering degree will allow an individual to pursue any profession.”

Westbrook’s father, former state Sen. Phil Nicholas, was a huge proponent, strongly encouraging each of the four children to study at the College of Engineering. Sen. Nicholas earned his law degree from UW.

Westbrook’s oldest brother, Joseph Nicholas, graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from UW. He later completed his Ph.D. at Colorado School of Mines and now works for Fleur De Lis Energy as a petroleum engineer and is the Rocky Mountain regional manager. Nathan Nicholas earned a degree in electrical engineering and later completed a law degree and a Master of Business Administration degree from UW. He previously worked for the Wyoming governor’s office, but now works for WellDog, overseeing its international business. The youngest brother, John Nicholas, graduated with a degree in civil and architectural engineering. He now works as a structural engineer for Stahly Engineering in Bozeman, Mont.

“I take the most pride in the successes of my entire family rather than my individual successes,” Westbrook says. “We are all extremely proud of our education from the College of Engineering at UW.”

It’s safe to assume her family is proud of her individual accomplishments. After a standout high school academic career, she considered several options for college.

“My two older brothers were studying engineering at UW and had great things to say about the college and its professors,” she says. “In the end, I decided on UW due to the strength of the CEAS. The scholarships available certainly played a role in my decision as well.”

Westbrook’s career serves as a great example of what an engineering degree can do for a motivated individual. She also credits the overall CEAS environment for helping her.

“Obtaining a degree from UW was a very unique experience,” she says. “The classroom sizes are small, which allows the students to have more individualized education. This allows for a working relationship with the professors that cannot be achieved at many other schools. In addition, it allows for very strong relationships and friendships to develop among classmates. My long-term friendships have been one of the most valuable aspects of my education.”

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