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Arnold School of Public Health

Arnold School’s Tryon and Farr share their graduate school experiences with congressional staff members

November 4, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, 

When staff members from the office of U.S. Senators Graham and Scott and U.S. Representatives Clyburn, Duncan, Gowdy, Mulvaney, Rice, Sanford and Wilson asked to meet with two exceptional students about their graduate school experiences, USC chose the Arnold School of Public Health’s Sarah (Kitty) Tryon and Deeonna Farr for this once in a lifetime conversation. Both students are Presidential Fellows, both of them value the Arnold School’s research and mentorship opportunities, and both of them are passionate about public health. But their professional similarities end there—demonstrating just how diverse the career paths in public health can be.

Tryon, a second-year exercise science doctoral student in our No. 1 ranked Ph.D. program in the country, grew up in S.C. and attended Furman University where she earned a B.S. in Neuroscience and B.A. in German Studies while playing Division 1 soccer. She then taught high school English in Germany for two years on a Fulbright Student English Teaching Assistant Grant and a grant from the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of Germany’s Paedagogischer Austauschdienst Program. Her professional interests are centered on research in the sciences, particularly neuroscience, and the diverse techniques and approaches used to answer those research questions.

Farr is a fourth-year DrPH candidate in the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB) who grew up in New York City but has extended family in S.C. She earned a B.S. in Human Development from Cornell University and an MPH from George Washington University before working in various public health roles. Farr’s goals are focused on reducing the inequities in cancer burden that black Americans experience using a community-based participatory research approach.

When choosing the Arnold School, Tryon was enticed by the cutting-edge and collaborative research opportunities, an atmosphere that clearly values mentorship, and the existence of USC’s Behavioral Biomedical Interface Program (which she subsequently joined). “I was interested in a university that offered me the education and the research opportunities to study the junction of neuroscience and exercise science,” she says. “But it was after meeting Dr. Troy Herter to discuss what USC is doing in the areas of exercise science, rehabilitative science, neuroscience, and cognition that I quickly focused my sights on USC, realizing the value in applying to its nationally ranked program and rigorous curriculum.”

Similarly, Farr was also drawn to the Arnold School based on mentorship and research opportunities—her interests just happened to fall in a completely different area. “I came to visit after I was accepted, and there were a lot of exciting projects going on at the Cancer Prevention and Control Program (CPCP); the faculty members were very energetic, and they had strong partnerships with the local communities,” she says. “For me, the connection that I made with my mentors Drs. Heather Brandt and Daniela Friedman who are faculty in HPEB and CPCP convinced me that USC was the right place for me.”

Since they arrived, they have each made the most of their programs and access to engaging mentors. Neither has taken these opportunities for granted, and both are blazing their own trails in their respective fields. Dating back to her Fulbright days in Germany, Tryon has been involved in the International Brain Bee, a neuroscience competition for high school students. “I’ve been dedicated to the mission of this event ever since, and enjoyed co-coordinating the 2014 International Brain Bee competition in Washington, D.C. and co-coordinating the 2015 USA National Brain Bee competition in Baltimore,” she says. “I look forward to organizing a local Brain Bee competition within the next 18 months here in Columbia so that this incredible event can inspire South Carolina students to develop an interest in neuroscience as well!” Tryon also serves as treasurer of the USC Fulbright Student organization, and she is in the process of establishing a new student organization, Graduate Association for Brain Awareness (GABA), at USC to promote the importance of neuroscience and brain-related research and education.

Meanwhile, Farr has spent her time mentoring undergraduate students and successfully procuring a National Institutes of Health grant that gave her two years of funding to look at factors that influence cancer research participation by African-Americans. Using this grant and working on others within CPCP, she has immersed herself in research that examines individual, community and healthcare related factors that impact black Americans’ participation in cancer prevention research, breast cancer and colorectal cancer screening. “Part of why I came to USC is due to the strong community-based participatory research partnerships that CPCP enjoys with several black faith-based organizations,” she says. “Through these partnerships, I have gained first-hand experience in using this type of approach, which is rare for a graduate student.” She also takes her status as a Presidential Fellow very seriously. “As a Presidential Fellow, I do feel that we serve as unofficial ambassadors for USC and The Graduate School,” Farr explains. “I truly appreciate the support I’ve received from the program and The Graduates School, especially Deans Elfenbein and Ford; it is an honor and privilege to be asked to represent the university in this way.”

The support the two students have received from their Arnold School mentors has surpassed their expectations as well. “Dr. Herter is a motivating mentor and example of someone who is able to integrate expertise from many areas, including rehabilitative sciences and cognition, in his research,” says Tryon, who also found guidance from the School of Medicine’s David Mott. “I truly owe my development as a researcher in both rehabilitative sciences and the neurosciences as a graduate student thus far to both Dr. Herter’s and Dr. Mott’s guidance, expertise and the time they have invested in my training so far,” she says. To other students, Tryon advises that it’s important to get to know faculty and discuss their research with them. “Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions, as questions can spark great ideas,” she says.   

Farr identifies Brandt as her primary mentor but feels very fortunate to have found an extensive team of mentors at CPCP. “Drs. Friedman, Hébert, Adams and Armstead have all provided me with amazing insights about cancer prevention research, community-based participatory research and academia,” she says. Farr also points to the importance of hands-on experience. “Public health is amazing field because of the vast diversity of issues it covers; however, there is only so much of public health that you can learn from a book,” she says. “My advice to anyone interested in public health is to make contact with a professor, public health practitioner or researcher who is doing something cool, and ask if you can volunteer and work with them.”

After touring USC at the beginning of the semester, the group of legislative staff members sat down with Tryon and Farr to cover all these details—their backgrounds and why they chose USC for their graduate studies. The visitors were also interested in learning how they believe their graduate programs would help them advance their careers. Both Tryon and Farr are confident their experiences at the Arnold School are preparing them to pursue their ideal careers.

Once she earns her degree, Tryon would like to obtain a postdoctoral fellowship and eventually secure a research position in an academic setting, where she can add to our understanding of how the brain’s synaptic plasticity changes in various diseases and how neuronal communication is altered due to exercise.  “On a broader scale, I want to tie the importance of physical activity back to neuroscience in an effort to improve lives both mentally and physically,” she says.

Long-term, Farr’s goal is to secure a tenure-track research position that will allow her to engage in the community-based participatory research approach that she has become so passionate about. In particular, she wants to expand her existing research on racial inequities in cancer burden. Farr believes that not only her HPEB program, but specifically her DrPH degree, will best prepare her to do just that. “The DrPH degree provides a foundation in both the research and practice aspects of public health and with an emphasis on the development of skills necessary to develop, implement and evaluate public health research and programs,” she says.

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