As a child, Sara Jo Nixon looked at her two younger sisters. One was the pretty one; one was the funny one. So, she said, she decided to be the smart one.
Now, Nixon is the co-vice chair of the UF department of psychiatry and chief of addiction research. She became the first woman in the College of Medicine to be named a distinguished professor by the university in August — one of the highest honors a UF professor can receive.
In total, the College of Medicine only has four distinguished professors, and the other three are men. But she’s not special just because she’s the first woman, Nixon said. There are plenty of other women who are deserving.
But receiving the award confirms the fact that 16 years worth of her work at UF is valued, she said.
“You always want to believe that you’re going to be able to leave some kind of legacy,” she said. “I’m thrilled.”
Decades ago, she said she used to be frustrated by the idea of deliberate career boosts for women — getting a job because employers want to even out the gender ratio in a workplace, for example. As a graduate assistant at the University of Oklahoma, she told her mentor, developmental psychologist Patricia Self, she’d never want to land a job just because she was a woman.
She still feels she would rather be known for her accomplishments rather than her gender, she said. But Self gave her some advice she still follows to this day, Nixon said.
“She made a very good point,” Nixon said. “And that was that it doesn’t matter why you got the job, it matters what you do with the job.”
She views her new title as a distinguished professor the same way, she said. It doesn’t matter that she’s the first — it matters how she can use the new title to go even further.
Nixon grew up in Oklahoma with school teachers for parents — her father was also a minister and her mother would later become a social worker. She came from a six-person household that struggled to make ends meet with two younger sisters and a brother, Nixon said.
Although she never went hungry, she grew up mindful about her expenses. When it came time to pursue higher education, Nixon said she worked hard to finish her bachelor's degree in science early at Southwestern Oklahoma State University so she wouldn’t have to pay for more than she needed to.
As an undergraduate student, she typically took 17 to 19 credits a semester and worked part time, she said. She said she was unsure of how much longer she could stay out of the workforce, she said, while living a subpar life. Nonetheless, she eventually decided she wanted to go to graduate school.
“How much could I tolerate having nothing for this period of time?” she said. “But I knew if I didn't do it, I would always regret it.”
Her internal compass had always pointed her toward wanting to be a professor, she said. So, she pursued a doctorate degree in psychology and found her way to UF, where she’s worked since 2006.
Carol Mathews, interim chair for the UF department of psychiatry, said she’s known Nixon for as long as she’s been at UF — since 2015. Mathews worked with Nixon on a variety of projects and looked to her for help with navigating research and becoming more involved with graduate student education. She said Nixon has been a great resource for her.
But the greatest part about working with Nixon is her light-hearted attitude, Mathews said.
“She has a wicked sense of humor,” she said. “She lightens the room up.”
Back during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Mathews said her department was having regular Zoom meetings to discuss the virus. Because it was a difficult topic, she said the department created a competition to see who could come up with the best Zoom background to develop more of a sense of camaraderie.
Nixon took the competition seriously. She would dress up in a new outfit each time and use hats, scarves and glasses that best suited her Zoom background. She almost always won the competition, Mathews said.
“Dr. Nixon always takes it to the next level,” she said. “She brings a sense of engagement to almost anything she comes to.”
That kind of humor is important to their field of medicine, Mathews said. People in the College of Medicine work with serious subjects like mental health and substance use problems. Although the research is important, it can be difficult at times, she said.
“I think the idea of bringing a little slice of human-ness to the field is important,” she said. “She brings this sense of connection and personal touch.”
Nixon brings that energy not only to her peers, but also to her mentees in the field.
Lisa Merlo, a UF psychiatry professor who Nixon has mentored since 2006, said the attention Nixon gives to her students is what makes her stand out. Nixon has over a dozen undergraduate mentees working with her each year, Merlo said, as well as postdoctoral trainees and faculty members.
“She’s really invested in not only furthering her line of research but also helping others who are coming along behind her,” Merlo said.
Nixon’s mentorship style is centered around helping mentees become goal-oriented students. She encourages them to go down a path that’s right for them and helps them play to their strengths, Merlo said.
“Through her own work, she’s able to pull people into the field and get people excited,” she said. “It’s really been a synergistic effect.”
Contact Siena at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SienaDuncan.
Carol Mathews is the interim chair for the UF department of psychiatry and Lisa Merlo is a UF psychiatry professor. The Alligator originally reported otherwise.
Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat.