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PBK writing intern a mix of science, humanities

As one of 15 Phi Beta Kappa writing interns this semester, Kelly Coughlin will focus her articles for the PBK publication Key Reporter on medical humanities. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published September 17, 2015

“I can tie together my background in biology with my interest in the humanities. The overarching theme is to inform and improve health care.”
Kelly Coughlin, Phi Beta Kappa writing intern

When UB faculty members cite senior Kelly Coughlin’s credentials and accomplishments, her paper, “Too Much of Water,” is front and center. Examining Ophelia’s death in “Hamlet,” Coughlin’s paper was chosen to be presented during the 2014 regional undergraduate English Department Conference on Violence.

Most recently, Coughlin joined the exclusive ranks of Phi Beta Kappa writing interns as one of only 15 nationwide for this semester. Over the next five months, she will write six in-depth articles for PBK’s prestigious publication, Key Reporter.

As expected with someone as furiously busy as Coughlin, there’s more. A lot more.  Her interest in UB’s Global Healthy Equity Community of Excellence borders on a passion, especially because her overarching ambition is to be a physician. But one of her real gifts has been finding ways to impressively and gracefully bridge the science-orientated STEM courses in her biological sciences major with a need to write — a passion that appeared with a vengeance as early as the first grade. Back then, Coughlin kept asking her teacher for more paper to satisfy her drive to fully explain her creative writing assignment: tell the story about a picture of kids hitting a baseball through a window.

Her teacher eventually cut her off. Coughlin got one final sheet of paper before her teacher told her that was enough. She had to stop now.

A UB Honors Scholar and recipient of a four-year Presidential Scholarship, Coughlin already has been admitted to the UB medical school through its early assurance program. She spent last semester studying literature and the arts at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. While there, she was inducted to UB’s Phil Beta Kappa chapter, an honor that gives her membership in the nation’s most prestigious honor society.

Coughlin’s many faculty fans and boosters also are quick to bring up last fall’s cardboard boat race, a fund-raising event run by the Honors Philanthropy Council in which teams were given cardboard and duct tape, and told to build a boat that could make it across Lake LaSalle. Two people per team were required to man the boat.

“Our boat began sinking when we got in it,” Coughlin says. “So I got out of the boat and swam behind it, pushing it across the lake.”

Others with sinking cardboard boats also jumped into the water and tried to pull or drag their boats to the finish line. But Coughlin did it better, eyewitnesses say. She pushed and kicked fiercely while her partner stayed inside to steer and paddle. Her boat came in second or third — she can’t remember which. But she beat all her friends in the race. If you ask Coughlin, she’ll tell you that was what really mattered.

“I was on the swim team for six years in middle school and high school,” Coughlin says in her gentle, thoughtful but expressive voice. “I was up to the challenge.”

That boat race resolve would do nicely as a quick introduction to Coughlin, another UB undergraduate to earn national distinction that propels them to the top ranks of university students.

“She’s as fleet of body as she is of mind,” says Barbara Bono, associate professor of English, academic director of UB’s Civic Engagement Academy, outgoing president of UB’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter and Coughlin’s mentor for the writing internship.

“She’s the best,” Bono says. “When I saw her the other day again after her semester away in England, she was complimenting the girl who won first place at the ‘Violence’ conference. I still have the stunning poster she made to accompany her paper, a twist of Ophelia’s drowned body, shrouded in a winding sheet.

“‘That’s dark,’ I told her, and she said quickly, ‘It’s not for the light.’

“She’ll make a terrific physician because she knows that the care of the body is the avenue to the soul.”

Coughlin describes herself as a deep “mix of science and humanities.” Her drive to be a doctor comes at least partially from the inspiration of her mother, who is a neonatal nurse practitioner. Her father ran his own business and now manages school budgets for the Broome-Tioga BOCES (She grew up in the Maine-Endwell School District near Binghamton.) Coughlin finds herself immersed in medical humanities, the subject of her first article for her Phi Beta Kappa writing internship. It’s perfect for Coughlin because it’s a scholarly movement aimed at broadening pre-med students’ exposure educational experience, what UB’s director of the Center for Medical Humanities called getting medical students out of their “monkish existence.”

These academic disciplines that blend the technical with the arts hit responsive chords in Coughlin. She calls medicine the “nexus of science and humanities.”

“You have to have an understanding of people to be able to practice medicine,” she says. “You just can’t go into it with just a science perspective.”

The drive to write has endured throughout her life. When she was in fourth grade, she wrote a story her teacher liked so much, she submitted it to an anthology of short stories by young Americans. It was the first time anybody ever published something she wrote, and Coughlin to this day remembers the rush she felt when first held the actual book with her story.

That same excitement about writing and reading has happened to her “again and again.”

“I think it goes along with not liking to talk about myself,” Coughlin says. “I find I can just get my ideas across so much better in writing. I find I have a voice in writing I don’t always have in person. I have been trying to get over my great fear of public speaking, but at the same time, I think it is one of the reasons I developed strong writing skills — I had so much to say and needed an outlet for saying it.”

One of Coughlin’s true gifts is her ability to see how disciplines can come together to complement one another. And nothing illustrates this or triggers her intellectual excitement more than her work in epidemiology — the patterns, causes and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations. That and its relations to public health.

For Coughlin, it all comes together there: the science, the crucial application of the real work where she can do something she felt the urge to do since she was a young girl — help people — and the understanding that writing well and communication is a key part of being effective.

“Epidemiology is another field where you can't solely rely on the scientific component,” says Coughlin. “You observe, you measure and then you have to sit back and think I think it ties in well with the other topics.

“For example, you have to consider social and cultural factors. If your study relies on self-reported information, you have to consider reasons why an individual might not tell you the truth. If you were asking about smoking habits in a society where there is a stigma against smoking, people might report that they smoke less than they actually do. Right now, the work I am doing is focused on the effects of indoor air pollution — which includes secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke — on maternal and newborn health, so this example is very relevant,” she says.

“A phrase I hear a lot is that ‘you don't conduct a study in a vacuum.’ You have to consider the human element. So really I would say that epidemiology is the ‘nexus of science and humanities,’ perhaps even more so than medicine, but they go hand-in-hand.”

Her work with Pavani Kalluri Ram, associate professor and co-director of the master of public health degree concentration in epidemiology, makes Coughlin feel “like I am part of something much bigger than myself.”

“I can tie together my background in biology with my interest in the humanities. The overarching theme is to inform and improve health care.”

For that reason, she says, she is strongly considering applying to the MD/PhD program at the UB medical school, which students can apply to prior to attending or within their first two years of medical school.

With typical interdisciplinary ease, Coughlin says this course of study ties back well to the Phi Beta Kappa internship because she plans to focus her writing on medicine and health issues.

“The information that epidemiologists gather is only useful if it can be translated into changes in health behaviors, which means disseminating information effectively,” she says. “Being able to write and communicate effectively — whether it is in an article for an academic journal or translating the results of a study into a format people outside of the field can understand — will be a powerful tool.

“Writing started out as a hobby, but it is more than that now.”