PhD Student Kirsten Thornhill Learns to Reframe Success and Focus on Helping Others through Learning and Research

by | Aug 18, 2021 | Blog

Contributing Author(s):
Kirsten Thornhill headshot

Kirsten Thornhill, MS, left her full-time job as an Exercise and Rehabilitation Specialist and Adjunct Instructor in San Diego, California, to come to Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions (RMUoHP) as a Residential Research Assistant in Provo, Utah, while working toward a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Health Sciences with an emphasis in Human & Sport Performance.

For her it was a matter of passion and love for health sciences. “I enjoy asking questions, exploring the scientific literature, as well as learning and absorbing as much as I can from experts in the field,” said Thornhill.

Thornhill received a Bachelor of Arts in Kinesiology Exercise Science from California State University (CSU), Stanislaus, in Fall 2017. During her undergraduate education, she worked as a Research Assistant in the university’s Exercise Physiology Lab as well as a Rehabilitation Aide in an acute care rehabilitation facility. 

After graduating, Thornhill pursued a Master of Science in Kinesiology Exercise Physiology at Point Loma Nazarene University. During her master’s program, she worked as a Teaching Assistant and Laboratory Coordinator for the Exercise Physiology Lab. She also interned as an Exercise Physiologist at Scripps Memorial La Jolla Hospital.

All of Thornhill’s undergraduate experiences helped shape her passion for laboratory work and research. “Getting to experience being a Research Assistant while I was in college to being a teaching assistant while I was pursuing my master’s; it has always felt like home–comfortable in the most uncomfortable way for continuous growth,” said Thornhill. 

Those experiences prompted Thornhill to apply for the Residential Research Assistant position while working on her PhD. “My previous experiences working in laboratories has been nothing but rewarding, challenging, and humbling. Plus, I definitely have the mentality of ‘you don’t know until you try’, so I applied!” said Thornhill.

Despite Thornhill’s passion for learning and growth, her academic journey hasn’t been without its challenges. Thornhill is a first generation college graduate, which meant she had to navigate her academic journey on her own. While she acknowledges the help of influential individuals and mentors along the way, she said, “I did have to figure it out as I went, most of the time alone, day by day.”

Kirsten Thornhill doing yoga pose on stump in the snow

That wasn’t the only challenge. “Due to my personal experiences with eating disorders and body dysmorphia, I struggled in my undergraduate years – more times than once,” said Thornhill. Her struggles even led to her withdrawing for one semester. “If it hadn’t been for psychologists and healthcare professionals helping me along the way to recover physically and mentally, I wouldn’t be here. The help, support, acceptance, and love I received from strangers significantly changed my life, perceptions, and outlook on myself and my worth,” said Thornhill.

Having experienced those personal challenges, Thornhill uses it as motivation to help others and direct some of her purpose. “My passion for what I do and where I want to go is an unequivocal core piece and patch to my existence and being,” said Thornhill.

She adds, “My views on life, healthcare, education, and my future goals have been significantly impacted by my education thus far, in the best, most bolded, way possible. Because of my trials and tribulations I endured through my undergraduate years, being a competitive bodybuilder who developed severe eating disorders and body dysmorphia, my education in health, exercise, and nutrition really hit home and was more than relatable and real for what I was enduring in my personal life.”

But all of those challenges brought her to where she is and helped her develop the passion she has for healthcare and learning. “I took immense pride in developing my education and foundational knowledge in health sciences, as I felt a heavy responsibility to better educate myself so I could better educate others (one day) on body image, healthy eating, and behavioral change,” said Thornhill. “My recovery experiences were the greatest wake up call I’ve experienced.” 

As Thornhill continues to move forward, she has begun to reframe how she views life, her own accomplishments, and success. “As a recovering perfectionist for years, I so heavily defined success as achieving a certain GPA, being offered a certain job, or winning first place in a competition,” said Thornhill. “However, now I reframe success as a fulfillment toward others, as in ‘what can I do to help someone else today?’ If I can help or assist or refer someone, physically or mentally,” said Thornhill, “I have done my job for the day.” 

True success for Thornhill, is found in the little day-to-day acts of kindness. “I don’t need to take on the world by a ‘success storm’ anymore, a one-day, one-person at a time approach is more than enough for what my heart desires.” 

As a Residential Research Assistant in the PhD program at RMUoHP, Thornhill’s current research focuses on wearable technology and ultrasound flow-mediated dilation (FMD) techniques to assess vascular responses in rehabilitation patients. She soon plans to dive into the perceptions and effects of cannabis and its role in athletic performance. 

Thornhill’s efforts are making a difference for her in her own career pursuits and as she looks for ways to enhance and improve health, specifically through holistic alternatives for muscle recovery for human and sport performance.