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Arnold School of Public Health


I Am Public Health: Chelsea Larsen

April 1, 2017

When Chelsea Larsen was an undergraduate studying kinesiology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a graduate teaching assistant in her exercise physiology class asked if any of the students wanted to get involved in research. “On a whim, I said yes,” says Larsen, who calls it easily one of the best decisions she ever made. “She really cultivated my passion for research, and she is one of the main reasons I’m where I am today.”

Where is Larsen today? She is a doctoral candidate in her field’s number one Ph.D. program in the country. And she’s on her way to a career that combines her two passions: physical activity and technology.

During her bachelor’s program, where she received the university’s Award for Extraordinary Professional Promise, Larsen gained a lot of experience using ActiGraphs to measure children’s physical activity. She received her first FitbitTM during her senior year, and the wearable device was a turning point for Larsen.

“My sister bought me one as a graduation present and within a month I convinced the rest of my family to get one too,” she says. “I loved the easy objective measure of my physical activity, the social support through challenges, and I felt that Fitbits could be a good way to help get the average person physically active.”

USC’s MPH- PAPH program was exactly what I was looking for. It perfectly blended my love for exercise science and my newfound interest in public health, something that I quickly realized was a passion of mine.

-Chelsea Larsen, Exercise Science Ph.D. Student 

When Larsen arrived at the Arnold School to join the Department of Exercise Science’s Master of Public Health in Physical Activity and Public Health (MPH-PAPH) program, she knew she had found the right career path. “USC’s MPH-PAPH program was exactly what I was looking for,” Larsen says of her master’s program. “It perfectly blended my love for exercise science and my newfound interest in public health, something that I quickly realized was a passion of mine.”

She also secured a graduate assistantship with UofSC’s Campus Wellness initiative. Her position focused on disease prevention for faculty and staff and introduced her to Faculty and Staff Wellness Coordinator Tina Devlin. “Tina’s passion for people and public health is contagious,” Larsen says. “She really gave me the confidence to put what I learned in my classes into practice through the great opportunities at Campus Wellness and helped me become the public health professional I am today.”

Larsen’s favorite Campus Wellness program to lead was Choose to Lose, a weight loss program for faculty and staff. During the program, she met with participants twice weekly to discuss strategies for healthy living (e.g., healthy eating, exercise, stress management) and then exercise as a group.

The Norman J. Arnold Doctoral Fellow also saw how important losing weight was for the participants. “It wasn’t just about looking better,” Larsen explains. “Participants wanted to be able to play with their grandchildren, manage their diabetes better, or get off of their blood pressure medication.”

Inspired by the program’s impact, Larsen created an online weight management program as a resource for those who were unable to come to the Choose to Lose classes. This interest in implementing interventions through technology is what led Larsen to work with Delia West, a professor in the EXSC department and the SmartState Chair of the Technology Center to Promote Healthy Lifestyles (TecHealth).

Larsen had first met West when the professor lectured for one of Larsen’s master’s-level classes. She asked West if she could work with her for her practicum project. Then she applied to the Ph.D. program with West as her mentor.

“Delia has taught me so much in the three years that she’s been my mentor, ” Larsen says. “She constantly challenges me to be the best researcher and public health professional I can be.”

USC has an amazing MPH program and the top doctoral exercise science program in the nation. Public health is such a rewarding field, and I encourage everyone to get involved. USC has so many amazing researchers and fantastic opportunities for students that I would recommend this university to anyone.

-Chelsea Larsen, Exercise Science Ph.D. Student

Now 1.5 years into her doctoral program, Larsen is deeply immersed in the emerging field of using technology to help facilitate and promote health behavior change (e.g., apps to help self-monitor diet, wearables to increase physical activity, online platform to disseminate a weight loss program). She is specifically interested in sedentary behavior and how technology can be used to help reduce both overall sedentary time and bouts of sedentary time.

“I believe wearables can be game changers for behavior change interventions,” says Larsen. “As more and more people are buying devices like Fitbits and Apple Watches, it’s important to learn how we best can use them to our advantage in strengthening our health promotion interventions. Technology is exciting and people are eager to use it!”

Working with Arnold School colleagues and serving as a graduate research assistant with TecHealth, she is developing her scholarship experience through peer-reviewed publications and presentations at academic conferences. She’s worked on several projects as a facilitator for weight loss—giving Larsen the opportunity to apply what she’s learned through her coursework and be a part of an interdisciplinary team that designs and evaluates interventions from start to finish. She also serves as the graduate student representative for the Provost’s Advisory Council on Women’s Issues and is a Fellow within the Biomedical and Behavioral Interface Program.

After her 2018 graduation, Larsen plans to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship to continue strengthening her research skills. She gives the two programs that helped jumpstart these skills her highest endorsement.

“USC has an amazing MPH program and the top doctoral exercise science program in the nation,” Larsen says. “Public health is such a rewarding field, and I encourage everyone to get involved. USC has so many amazing researchers and fantastic opportunities for students that I would recommend this university to anyone.”