Meet graduate student Kristen Volz

Kristen Volz
Kristen Volz.

When her family was affected by a breast cancer diagnosis, Kristen Volz sought an oncology rotation in her undergraduate dietetics program at UConn to learn more about the disease. Working at the Yale Cancer Center Survivorship Clinic, she found inspiration in bettering the lives of patients and a mentor that motivated her to continue her studies. She is defending her master’s degree thesis in health promotion sciences through the Department of Allied Health Sciences on July 30. Here is what she said in an interview.

Where did you study as an undergraduate?

I did my undergrad here at UConn. I’ve been here for a while!

What was your major?

The Dietetics Coordinated Program in the Department of Allied Health Sciences.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

It was a very last minute decision when I actually decided this is my future. It started during my last rotation of the coordinated program. It was a specialty rotation where you sought out whatever you want to get more experience in. I really love oncology and it has had such an impact on me and my family because my grandmother got breast cancer a few years ago. In a lot of the rotations I did, I focused on oncology. I’m so passionate about it. My mom and I have matching tattoos of the breast cancer ribbon in the shape of a heart for my grandmother. When she got her radiation tattoos done, which can be daunting, that weekend we got our tattoos done. It was one of those nice things to kind of understand how scary it can be to go through that and to know you have people behind you.

I was referred to a woman who worked at Yale Survivorship Clinic. They were working on a research study that aimed to change the gold standard of care for women with breast cancer. My mentor, Maura, was Superwoman. I aim to be just a little like her, if I can. She did outpatient care and she also did research, so I got to experience a little bit of both. That turned out to be so similar to my grad school experience. Through her, I got to see CAM [complementary and alternative medicine] practices being done for people receiving radiation and chemo. From that, I decided to get the health psychology certificate from the Department of Psychological Sciences.

Maura had this research project, a mini-project she gave me to do. When you’re an undergrad and you don’t know what you’re doing and some amazing woman on a team of superheroes gives you a project, you’re thinking, what am I doing?

I worked on an app for them. It was an online food tracker/exercise tracker, blending MyFitnessPal with the diabetic exchange diet. So, not only a calorie tracker, but tracking what foods they’re eating. Someone on chemo should aim for a rainbow in food variety. I was in the room when participants were interviewed, so I got to see how this app could change their lives. If I can better someone’s life, it’s pure bliss and happiness for me.

My mentor said the best thing I could get from the experience was for her to teach me how present this research project. Doing the research is one thing; presenting it another. How do you present to an all-star team? Maura taught me how to present the research: getting to the key points, taking away the fluff and making sure you have supporting references. I presented my research in front of the PI, who is a Yale professor. It was a mini-master’s experience.

You know, Yale has a pretty good reputation and it was a shaky knees experience! It was a quick presentation. In hindsight, I thought, “Why am I so stressed out?” It was a great experience.

The PI asked me if I was going to grad school and I thought, am I? Should I? And she said, you know, you stood up there like a pro and I know you practiced, but the fact that you were able to go up there and had a solid research base on everything, you should think about it. I thought, as stressful as that little project was, I enjoyed it. I felt at home, I loved the environment that I was in and I loved the people that I worked with and she said, you should go get more exposure. And I said, you know what, I should and I sent in my application that week. I let them know and they said, we’re so happy for you, we can’t wait to see what you produce in the future and we hope that you stick with this. I loved it. It was so amazing.

Who is your advisor?

Dr. Tricia Leahey.

What is your field of research?

The study I’m working on is one that Dr. Leahey created. It’s looking at cost effective interventions for treatment of obesity and it’s online, which fits exactly with my experience. Instead of having breast cancer participant patients, we have people who are obese and looking to lose weight, especially in the Hartford area. I have the nutrition background and I also have the health psychology background, and I wanted to blend the two together. So, my thesis focuses on stress and how it affects engagement and weight loss in the program. Will people stick to it over a long period of time? Behavior change is the hardest thing to do.

Name one aspect of your work that you like.

The point I made before, to give people a better life outcome, to give them more time here, to not miss out on experiences, whether it’s seeing the birth of a child or going to someone’s wedding or getting that promotion at work. A lot of people in our population aren’t that old. Even people in our program who are fifty years old still have a lot of life ahead of them. Just to be able to help people have a better life and leave this earth feeling like they’ve done everything they’ve wanted to do, that’s really my aim in my career. It’s a proud moment when you see your participants thriving.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment so far?

I like to say that the achievements come on top of personal growth. It’s been my confidence. My ability to talk right now and be open. I used to be so nervous and unsure. Do I say this? Do I not say this? It’s self-confidence and reassurance. Knowing that I’m the author of my own book. At the end of the day, I’m the one writing the story and there’s no wrong way to write it. There might be some grammatical issues, but it’s the story you want to write for yourself and it’s something that I definitely learned from being here.

What do you hope to do once you get your degree?

Oh boy! I have a lot of big projects right now. I really want to clear off my plate and give myself kind of a clean slate. I want to give myself a year off and dig down and feel what I should make my biggest effort towards. What at-risk population do I want to study? How do I want to do it?

I want to sit for my registered dietitian exam and get that life goal checked off my list. I see myself coming back for a Ph.D. I can’t tell if it’s the fact that I’m a little bit nosy, but I like seeing the results right away and before other people do and research is perfect for that! You have a toolkit and you keep putting tools in the toolkit as you go through grad school. I don’t feel like my toolkit is complete yet.

It’s been a wonderful experience. I found grad school better than undergrad. My experience in grad school was the best schooling experience I’ve had. I think it’s because I can focus on what I’m interested in.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

I’m a big rock climber. I’ve been rock climbing since my undergrad and I did collegiate competitions as well. I know I don’t look like it, but I’m pretty darn strong. I do indoor and outdoor ropes and bouldering. I’ve dabbled in a little bit of everything. It’s my mental health time. It’s my time for me. There’s a lot of metaphors going on in this hobby because when you’re climbing a ninety-foot cliff, when you’re focused and thinking about every move and clipping in, you’re not looking down. It’s almost like you’re never looking back. You’re always focused on what’s in front of you and getting a little bit further. Then by the time you clip in at the anchor when you get to the top, you look out and you’re up there above the tree line and everything is quiet and it’s just having that moment. It’s euphoric. You take a moment to breath and enjoy what’s out there and you ignore your belayer yelling, “Do you want to come down yet?” No, I’m enjoying this, let me stay up here, I worked hard to get here! It’s having that moment and realizing that you have all this craziness going on in your head and you need those times to just see what’s in front of you and take in the peace of it all. I climb all the time, like five days a week, and I try to get outside once a week. It’s probably like three hours every time I go out, it’s not a short-term thing, it’s dedication.

By Jason M. Sheldon