Our Story/Danielle Kovalsky

As someone who always planned to pursue a career in medicine, Danielle Kovalsky was motivated to learn more about the determinants of health.

“I did, and still do, believe it is extremely important to understand what factors in a person’s life contribute to their health, not just the basic underlying pathology of a disease,” the biobehavioral health major said.

With minors in neuroscience, human development and family studies, and biology, Kovalsky does not have a lot of down time. However, that has not stopped her from diving head first into the fields of health and medicine.

More than 4,500 Penn State students are enrolled in the College of Health and Human Development (HHD) studying a wide-array of fields, each committed to the concept of improving the quality of life for others. Kovalsky, who found a home in the Department of Biobehavioral Health (BBH), is one of those HHD students. This is her story.

Hailing from Worcester, Pennsylvania, Kovalsky came to Penn State planning to pursue a major in biology.

“I was taking an ecology course during the second semester of my freshman year when I realized that although I loved biology, the major was not the right fit for me,” she said.

And that is how she landed in BBH.

Thanks to her experiences in BBH, Kovalsky has had an opportunity to apply her classroom studies to numerous professional positions.

One such experience was an internship she held in summer 2014 at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Center for Injury Research and Prevention, where she studied Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in children.

During the 10-week program, Kovalsky interviewed children and their families to look for factors that influence symptoms of PTSD in children.

The experience, she said, helped teach her how to talk with children in challenging and delicate situations, a skill that does not come easily even to the best communicators.

“Being a BBH major has given me so many opportunities I never would have imagined,” Kovalsky said.

The Schreyer Honors Scholar is also getting real-world experience here on campus as an undergraduate research assistant in the Stress and Health Lab in the Department of Biobehavioral Health.

Under the direction of Jennifer Graham-Engeland, associate professor of biobehavioral health, Kovalsky studies stress in college students.

Kovalsky’s work involves recruiting students for the study, administering surveys and collecting saliva samples in an effort to understand day-to-day stress, and to explore interventions to help prevent it.

She said working in the lab has taught her how much detail goes into creating a study, the process of getting funding, difficulties of recruiting study samples, and how carefully procedures have to be run.

“Being involved with research during my time at Penn State has taught me so much about how what I am learning in the classroom applies to the real world,” she said. “It has also opened up a lot of doors through the relationships I have made with other undergraduates, graduate students and my research adviser.”

Kovalsky has also been involved with Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (THON) since 2011, holding such positions as morale committee member and special events committee member.

When she graduates in spring 2015, Kovalsky plans to pursue a career in pediatric medicine.

“I have always wanted to have a job working with kids, but my experience being involved in THON and in research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have really solidified my interest in medicine and pediatrics,” she said. “I would love to stay involved with research as a physician as well. My experience with research over the past three years has really show me how important research is in the field of medicine, and I would love to be able to contribute to the advancement of medicine in any way possible.”

As she prepares to leave Penn State, Kovalsky has some key advice for other BBH students: get involved in research as early as possible.

“Even if you do not think that research is something you want to pursue as a career, find a professor that is working on a project that interests you and see if you think there is an opportunity to work with him or her,” she said.

In addition to BBH, there are a variety of areas for students to study within HHD through the Departments of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Health Policy and Administration, Human Development and Family Studies, Kinesiology, Nutritional Sciences, Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, and the School of Hospitality Management.