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He’s been to the highest point in North America, to the southernmost continent in the world, and to an array of locales in between. And while he never imagined his career would take him to such exotic locations—or even that he would live outside of Western New York—Dr. Shawn Vainio, ’99, has learned that if you are willing to work hard, you can achieve your dreams.

As a child growing up in rural Byron, N.Y., Vainio enjoyed the outdoors. He hunted and fished with his father, a manufacturing engineer for Kodak, and helped tend the family’s large garden of fruits and vegetables. His mother inspired her son to serve others, setting an example each year by knitting mittens that young Vainio would place on the Christmas tree at St. Michael’s Parish for those in need. He was also fascinated by science in those early years, and a childhood heart condition spurred a personal interest in medicine, solidifying his desire to pursue a career as a doctor.

Vainio graduated from Byron-Bergen High School in 1995 as valedictorian of his class and Athlete of the Year, and enrolled at Niagara University on an honors scholarship with the dream of going to medical school. After graduating with B.S. in chemistry and biology in 1999, Vainio embarked on a post-graduation cross-country trek of more than 11,000 miles, including 22 states and 12 national parks, which ignited his passion for travel.

When he returned to Western New York, Vainio attended the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. During his fourth year as a medical student, he went to India with the Himalayan Health Exchange, an organization that has been bringing medical and dental services to the rural Indio-Tibetan borderlands region of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh since 1996. Vainio was in India for two months, providing free medical care to the Tibetan refugees, Northern Indians, and Gaddis people who call this remote area home.

Vainio returned to the United States and completed his final year in medical school, learned wilderness medicine with the Wilderness Medical Society in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of Tennessee, and traveled to Budapest, Hungary, to study forensic pathology.

After graduating from UB in 2003, Vainio pursued a specialty in family medicine at the University of Utah, where he found a program that provided strong training in all aspects of the field in an area that was close to the outdoors and the mountains he loved. He also returned to India twice during his residency.

In his final year at the University of Utah, Vainio received an e-mail that would change his life. A graduate of the program was looking for someone to come to Alaska to fill in for him while he continued his studies at Harvard. Vainio jumped at the chance to live in a place where he could fish and enjoy the outdoors.

So in September 2006, after graduating, passing his boards, and visiting India a fourth time, Vainio headed to Kodiak, Alaska, for his first real job as a substitute doctor at Kodiak Island Medical Associates clinic and in the emergency room at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center.

But the travel bug called to Vainio again, this time with an opportunity to work at a small U.S. research station in Antarctica, where he spent seven months as the sole medical provider for Palmer Station, a place so remote that it is accessible only by boat.

Vainio returned to Kodiak and continued his work in family medicine there until 2015, when he joined Peace Health, a not-for-profit healthcare system with medical centers, critical access hospitals, and medical clinics located in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. For two years, Vainio traveled throughout those states, providing a full spectrum of family medical care.

In 2017, Vainio accepted his current position as a family practitioner with the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, where he provides emergency, inpatient, and obstetrical services to the native Alaskans living in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta in Western Alaska.

Vainio’s dedication to the Himalayan people also continues through his service with the Himalayan Health Exchange. He spends a month nearly every year in India, taking a team of medical students, residents, and other medical professionals from around the world to the Trans-Himalaya region where he supervises the delivery of medical care. He also serves as a member of the HHE’s advisory panel and was a member of its foundation’s board for 14 years.

His work has earned him several recognitions, including the 2007 Antarctica Service Medal, the 2022 Family Physician of the Year for Alaska and, most recently, the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Humanitarian Award for his extraordinary and enduring humanitarian efforts in family medicine.