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Arnold School of Public Health


Honors undergrad joins an early acceptance and research experience program for medical school

September 14, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Few aspiring medical students can relax their senior year knowing that they have already been accepted to medical school. Kelsie Dirksingreceived both early acceptance and admission to a competitive research program at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine during the spring semester of her junior year, but she isn’t exactly relaxing.

A Cincinnati native, Dirksing chose the University of South Carolina because of the small class sizes within the nationally ranked Honors College. A generous scholarship sealed the deal. During her freshmen year, the then-biology major connected with Associate Professor Heather Brandt (Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior) who introduced her to the Arnold School’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program (CPCP). She started working with CPCP’s S.C. Cancer Disparities Community Network, collaborating with African-American churches in S.C. to address cancer disparities through awareness, education, research and training efforts. With Brandt’s support, Dirksing has even initiated and secured her own funding for various research projects and has contributed to several manuscripts that are currently under development.

“After only a few weeks of working with Dr. Brandt, I became very interested in health promotion and working with communities at higher risk for health disparities,” she says. “I love the idea of teaching others about what they can do to prevent disease and improve their overall lifestyle.”

To learn more about public health, she took Public Health 102, and her interest grew from there. “Switching my major to public health was one of the best decisions I have made in my undergraduate career,” Dirksing says. She kept biology as her minor.

Dirksing is convinced that this decision and her work with Brandt and CPCP helped her gain acceptance into the ROSE Program at the University of Cincinnati. ROSE, which stands for Research Observation Service and Education, has granted her two summers as a research intern and early acceptance to the school’s College of Medicine. She learned about the program during the summer between her sophomore and junior years when she was involved in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program through the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

This past summer, Dirksing’s first with the ROSE Program, she worked with an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine. Her project led her to help develop an app that primary care physicians can use in their offices to help patients quit smoking. “This research project allowed me to learn more about smoking and its implications for public health, while also becoming more knowledgeable of cessation methods and how physicians can maximize their role in helping smokers quit,” she says. Dirksing also shadowed physicians in geriatrics, prenatal clinic, palliative care, family medicine and surgical oncology. She participated in service events as well.

Fresh off her first summer research internship with the ROSE Program, Dirksing is excited to tackle her senior year and continue building her knowledge base. Her experiences with the Arnold School have led her to recommend the public health program to prospective students.

“I have learned how to effectively communicate to people and populations with whom I will be working as a physician, and I have become more knowledgeable about raising awareness and promoting healthy lifestyles, particularly among those who are more susceptible to certain diseases,” she says. “Majoring in public health allows you to explore the preventive side of medicine and how to help others stay a step ahead of disease, which will be very helpful when practicing medicine.”

Despite her high level of scholarly activity, Dirksing stays grounded by training for half marathons, reading and spending time with family. “My parents have been important mentors to me, constantly offering their support and pushing me to follow my dreams,” says the oldest of five. “My dad, a two-time cancer survivor and the strongest person I know, inspired me to get involved in cancer research and medicine.”

This inspiration led Dirksing to Brandt, who she calls “an important role model” for helping her get this far. Brandt’s team of staff and students—both graduate and undergraduates—uses a collaborative approach toward mentoring. They all work together to learn from one another and foster an inviting space to exchange ideas and provide support. All of the team members, particularly undergraduates like Dirksing, benefit.

“Dr. Brandt has given me her endless support since my freshmen year, and I would not be in this position without her,” she says. “Her talents are limitless, and to me, she encompasses everything that a strong, independent woman should be.”

The respect is mutual. “She has a high aptitude for research, is perpetually optimistic, and produces high quality work that is equivalent to many doctoral students,” Brandt says of Dirksing. “She has earned my trust and respect.”

These qualities will serve Dirksing well when she completes her final internship with the ROSE Program after she graduates from the Arnold School in May and then enrolls in medical school next fall. She also plans to earn a master’s degree in public health. “I hope to work in primary care as a pediatrician or family doctor,” she says. “I would also like to continue doing public health-related research within the community.”