Flinn Scholar and Flinn-Brown Fellow Sarah Coles advocates for today’s patients and tomorrow’s doctors

December 18, 2019

By Matt Ellsworth

By Brian Powell
Flinn Foundation

Dr. Sarah Coles is caring for the residents of Arizona in countless ways.

Coles, a Flinn-Brown Fellow, is a physician, educator, curriculum developer, policy expert, a member of state and national boards, and overall advocate for patient health.

And this all happens one mile south of North High School in central Phoenix, where Coles was selected as a Flinn Scholar in 2002 and chose to attend the University of Arizona—sparking a lifelong commitment to the health of the state.

“I use the skills I learned in Flinn-Brown every single day,” Coles says. “Physicians have to advocate in the exam room for patients and have to advocate in the health care system.”

Coles splits time between seeing her own patients as a family-medicine primary-care provider and running the primary-care programs as a faculty member for the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix on the campus of Banner University Medical Center-Phoenix.

Coles, who graduated as a member of the College of Medicine-Phoenix’s inaugural cohort in 2011, went on to create the longitudinal patient-care course for the third and fourth year of medical school, where medical students, in collaboration with Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, work with an adult with a chronic medical condition who serves as a mentor.

Coles was named the 2018 Alumna of the Year for the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix. She was also recognized by Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego during the annual Phoenix State of the City address.

“It was very nice. (Mayor Gallego) was talking about the College of Medicine-Phoenix and gave me acknowledgement as someone working with the community I grew up in and partnering with the medical school to do community engagement,” Coles says.

The Flinn Scholarship

Until she received the merit-based Flinn Scholarship, Coles was considering universities in California and some Ivy League schools. A saxophone player, Coles studied music performance in addition to molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona.

She remembers the mentorship opportunities as a Flinn Scholar that shaped her life as well as the travel opportunities and experiences of different cultures, places, and ideas. She conducted shark research during a summer in Australia and throughout her undergraduate years received support making connections with both researchers and fellow musicians.

“I got into medicine for a number of reasons,” she says. “I was interested in science and anatomy and biology, and I was interested in people’s stories and having an opportunity to be a part of their stories. I was inspired to be the doctor that engaged with families and I wanted the meaningful relationship.”


The Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy, the flagship program of the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership, features an intensive seminar series with state policy experts and key political figures. The program competitively selects about 25 Arizonans each year seeking to expand their state-level public service.

Coles is one of more than 350 Fellows who make up the Flinn-Brown Network. She exercises her civic leadership through activity around health-care policy at the state and national level and works alongside community organizations and government agencies.

She was appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey to sit on the Arizona Drug Overdose Fatality Review Board. She is also a board member of the Arizona Medical Association and an ex officio board member of the Arizona Academy of Family Physicians and serves on an American Academy of Family Physicians commission. Coles has supported programs to address the primary-care physician shortage across Arizona and has opposed bills that would have made it easier to opt out of vaccinations. She wrote letters and encouraged residents, medical students and faculty to testify before the Arizona Legislature.

Coles is also working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a breast-cancer campaign and sits on a national alliance to promote safe sleep and breastfeeding.

“For people interested in health care and who want to have an impact on the health of their communities at large or advocate for a profession and patient, Flinn-Brown prepared me to do that and enhanced the skills necessary to be successful,” Coles says.

Looking back over a nearly two-decade association with the Flinn Foundation, Coles recognizes how much her path has been shaped by the organization she met as a Flinn Scholarship applicant in the fall of 2001.

“I feel very grateful to the Flinn Foundation for all the opportunities and my life would look very different if I was not a Flinn Scholar or Flinn-Brown Fellow,” Coles said. “Staying involved is a chance to give back to an organization and community that has meant so much to me.”

The 2020 Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy, featuring 14 seminars, will begin in August and end in November 2020. The application will open in the spring.

An introductory program, CivEx, or the Arizona Civic Exchange, features four half-day discussions about state issues for those interested in becoming more involved in civic life, including potential candidates. The next CivEx series will be held in January and February. The registration period is now open.

Learn more about the Flinn Scholars program at www.flinnscholars.org. Learn more about Flinn-Brown and the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership at www.azcivicleadership.org.