Alumni Profile: Lauren Korshak, BS '05, MS '08

What degree did you receive from GW's SPHHS? What was your concentration?

I have a BS in Exercise Science with a minor in Public Health and an MS in Clinical Exercise Physiology.

Please tell us about your current position. Can you describe a typical day?

I work with a program called the LIVe, Lifestyle Intervention for Veterans, Program. LIVe was founded to empower Veterans diagnosed with diabetes with all of the knowledge they need to take the best care of themselves through a holistic approach to care. In addition to diet counseling and my exercise component, there are spirituality, recreation, and stress management components.

While I'm commuting to the same hospital and working the same shift, every day has its own unique challenges. When someone receives a diabetes diagnosis, he or she must quickly develop an intimate relationship with one's body. And usually that's when Veterans enroll in LIVe and come to see me. Veterans come into my exercise clinic, being, according to their accounts, perpetually "lazy" for the last 10, 20, or 40 years and now find themselves in a program where they are informed by my colleagues and myself that not only is it important to minimize the time they spend sitting, but, for many, their food choices need to be significantly adjusted as well. And to put it honestly, changing behavior is tough.

As each person commences participation in the exercise component of LIVe, it is my job to help them peel back all of the layers of all of the barriers they have had placed in their way of being able to adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors in an effort to empower them to start making decisions that will keep them healthy. It is my job to undo the years of military training and high school P.E. teachers and sports coaches that emphasized that "pain is weakness leaving the body"; that exercise isn't working unless you're so sore you can't walk for days after your last workout. I am tasked with teaching my patients that not only does exercise not have to be painful, but instead can be enjoyable. It is these experiences that make every day a unique challenge.

Please tell us about your path from SPHHS to where you are today. How did you get your first job in the field?

I initially thought when I graduated high school that I wanted to go to medical school. I arrived at GW not having a clue about what I wanted to study, except that I knew that I liked science and I was pretty sure I wanted to go into healthcare. During my first semester of college, I was tasked with picking a major. I chose exercise science.

I minored in public health and was certain that upon completing my B.S., I was going to do an MPH. I decided upon GW for my MPH. At that time, I ran into one of my former exercise science professors who asked me if I knew anyone who was looking for a job. Dr. Hamm, the director of the clinical exercise physiology program at GW, was opening Washington Hospital Center's new outpatient cardiac rehabilitation program. I quickly replied, "Me!" A few weeks later I interviewed, and accepted my first job, thanks to a fortuitous encounter with a GW professor.

It was working with Dr. Hamm at Washington Hospital Center when I realized that public health wasn't where I belonged. I sat in his office, explaining that I was really enjoying the clinical work I was doing with him and that I wasn't sure that an MPH was the right path for me. With Dr. Hamm's support, I applied to transfer programs to the MS in Clinical Exercise Physiology.

I moved from Washington Hospital Center across the street to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) for a position that afforded me more clinical and research opportunities. I managed a clinical research study evaluating the efficacy of improving health outcomes in patients living with congestive heart failure with exercise training. The problem with clinical trials is that they come to an end and the end of the trial meant the end to my paid position at the VAMC; I worked at the VA, not for the VA. But one of the nurses I worked with at the VAMC knew that the cardiac rehab program at Washington Adventist Hospital had just had their exercise physiologist resign. The nurse offered to pass my resume along and I was offered a position.

I worked at the cardiac rehab program for almost two years. The clinical skills I learned while I was there have proved invaluable in all of my future positions. I then took a position with ActiveHealth Management, a company that provides integrated population health management services to help improve quality of care, empower and engage individuals to make behavioral changes and measurably reduce health care costs. I was the company's exercise physiologist, their subject matter expert. I really enjoyed my position with ActiveHealth Management. But as I was there, a new position at the VAMC had been established. This time it was a permanent position, working for the VA. And it was exactly what I wanted to do. In this position I could use all of the different skills -- my clinical training, my research, my newly-honed health promotion skills -- to do some really wonderful, rewarding work.

What is the best career advice you have ever received?

Some of the best career advice I've received came from my parents. They instilled in me the importance of hard work and that I will never be given anything. If I wanted something, I had to work for it; either "you pay now or you pay later," Dad used to say to me. I am forever grateful for them showing me that not only is working a privilege, but it the most valuable tool I have in reaching my goals.

Dad also encouraged me to find something you love to do and get someone to pay you for it. And in all honesty, it's really that simple. Whenever I would get all worked up and worried about whether I really knew exactly what I "loved to do", Mom would encourage me to, "Just apply! What's the worst that could happen? They say no? Then you're in the same place you are now; which really isn't so bad." And usually it's not.

The advice that I give to people is that if an opportunity seems like it might be fun, to go ahead and give it a shot. Once it stops being fun, have the courage to move on. Chances are, everything will always work out in your favor.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in your field?

To be creative. Most exercise physiologists work in cardiopulmonary rehab settings, but I've learned that by being open to other, less traditional settings, there are so many opportunities to do good work and be well compensated. In some ways, it can be difficult to be an exercise physiologist; it's not like being a nurse or a physician, or a lawyer. It can be hard to find a position for an exercise physiologist; a lot of people don't know what I do. But that same challenge can be an incredible opportunity to create your own journey and to do exactly what is fun and exciting to you.

What was the impetus for getting your SPHHS degree?

I initially came to GW as an undergraduate student. When I was visiting with my parents, being on campus just felt right. I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship and discovered the exercise science department and had the most wonderful and supportive experience over the four years I was there.

I didn't intend to return initially for a second degree, in the same department . But as I look back on all of the years that I spent at GW, and continue to spend, as a clinical instructor in the department that trained and inspired me, I have zero regrets. I came out of GW incredibly knowledgeable and prepared for what opportunities came my way. It was during my years working towards both my degrees in the SPHHS where I grew and became the person I am now. It is where I was encouraged to take the risks I have and was given the confidence to follow my heart and carve out my own path, and for that I will forever be appreciative of the SPHHS.

Interview conducted June 2013.