By Chanapa Tantibanchachai
“Anyone can be taught the sciences, but stories show you what it really means to be human,” reflected U senior honors student Kajsa Vlasic. Vlasic, who graduated this spring with an honors degree in English and a minor in chemistry, chose an unconventional route to medical school that allowed her to pursue humanities research that examined the role of storytelling in medicine. Vlasic will attend the University of Utah’s School of Medicine this upcoming fall.
During her freshman year, Vlasic worked in Dr. Bala Ambati’s lab in the Moran Eye Center, participating in typical lab work that comes to mind when most think of pre-medical research experiences. After researching ocular angiogenesis for a little over a year, Vlasic realized that she didn’t enjoy lab research.
“This was a pivotal turning point in my undergraduate career. I’m really grateful for the experience because it helped steer me towards my true passions,” said Vlasic.
The summer after her freshman year, Vlasic went to Ghana for public health research, an opportunity made possible through the Honors College’s Global Health Scholars group. There, she explored indirect barriers that affect caretakers’ access to health care and their children. Vlasic worked on the project with an interdisciplinary team comprised of herself, one medical student, a pediatric resident, a public health student and a nurse.
“That trip opened my eyes to how multidisciplinary medicine and research can be,” said Vlasic.
When Vlasic returned from Ghana in the fall of 2011, she presented her research findings titled “Exploring the indirect determinants of mortality in young children in the Barekese sub-district, Ghana” at the Global Health Education Consortium Conference in Montreal.
That same semester, she became a volunteer researcher in the emergency room at the U’s hospital. Vlasic was responsible for enrolling patients into a chest pain study that’s still growing to this day and currently has about 2,600 research subjects.
In the following spring, Vlasic’s exemplary work led to an offer to work as an undergraduate coordinator for the emergency room, where her roles include coordinating clinical projects, processing Institutional Review Board applications to launch research and setting up and monitoring databases.
Under the direction of honors professor Michael Gills and with additional mentoring from Disa Gambera in the U’s English department, Vlasic focuses her honors thesis on narrative medicine and how physicians can better develop empathetic relationships by using guidelines for a compelling story and applying them to the physician-patient relationship. Vlasic’s thesis was inspired by her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis later survival.
With funding from the Honors College, Vlasic traveled across the U.S. and to Sweden to interview eight breast cancer survivors, including her mother, for her project. She then took an English course on women writers and how they wrote about their bodies, pain and suffering. Vlasic’s project combines the eight women’s stories with a literary analysis of how women have historically documented their corporeal experience.
Vlasic recently received the 2015 Outstanding Undergraduate Student Researcher in Humanities Award from the U’s Office of Undergraduate Research for her thesis work.
In addition to heavy research involvement throughout her five years at the U, Vlasic has also been extremely involved in the Honors College, which she credits for much of her success.
“The Honors Colleges encourages an interdisciplinary perspective. There were so many options available for me to get involved, it would have been a shame to not take advantage of them,” said Vlasic.
“When you’re a pre-med student, it feels like there’s a checklist of things you have to accomplish and put on your résumé, so it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in trying to complete that checklist rather than doing something meaningful. In my case, all of my experiences naturally and seamlessly compounded on each other in such a way that I have a story about my undergraduate years to tell, not a list of accomplishments to rattle off.”
Looking forward, Vlasic hopes to earn a Master of Public Health degree and eventually work as a physician with underprivileged communities.
Chanapa Tantibanchachai is an associate science writer at University Marketing and Communications. If you have an interesting story idea, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.