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RMU: Challenges, setbacks push doctoral student to excel

By Jody Genessy - Special to the Daily Herald | May 25, 2024

Courtesy Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions

Kirsten Thornhill

As successful as she’s been as a student, professor and researcher, Kirsten Thornhill is no stranger to rock bottom. In an interesting twist, the first half of that sentence likely wouldn’t have been possible without the second part.

Before earning her doctor of philosophy in health sciences degree at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions this spring and receiving several prestigious awards as a student and professor, including 2024 Best of State recognition, Thornhill overcame some significant challenges that helped her traverse a path that was both rocky and remarkable.

Over the years, Thornhill has dealt with severe sports-related ailments, including a torn ACL that happened on Utah slopes in 2021 shortly after she learned how to ski. She forged through three levels of higher education as a first-generation college student from a small farm town in California’s Central Valley. She also worked through anxiety, eating disorders and body dysmorphia due to an unhealthy bodybuilding addiction as a young adult.

Thornhill uses her life experiences to push herself and to help others. Her students, employers and patients and those who’ve heard her presentations and seen her research have benefited from lessons she’s learned from trauma and triumph.

“I would say take your life experiences — whether they’re really, really high or really, really low — keep those in your pocket and take an ownership approach,” Thornhill said. “Use those skills and those experiences to help build you into what you want to be, professionally or personally, and don’t allow those experiences to make you small. Allow those experiences to push you forward, however you decide to shape yourself.”

Thornhill grew up in Hughson, California, a farming community near Yosemite National Park known for producing almonds and walnuts that are distributed worldwide from the Central Valley. Her parents suggested she consider attending college after graduating from high school in the small town. Joining the military was another option. Thornhill chose to forge forward in college, beginning at nearby California State University, Stanislaus.

While attending “Stan State,” as locals call it, Thornhill got into weightlifting. She’d played basketball, volleyball, golf and softball while growing up, and pumping iron scratched that athletic itch in college. She enjoyed working out so much that she eventually became a competitive bodybuilder.

Bodybuilding success came with detrimental side effects. While devoting herself to participating in formal competitions around California, Thornhill’s mental and physical health suffered. She ended up being hospitalized after her kidneys started shutting down post-competition. She developed anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphia. That was her first rock bottom.

Thornhill decided to make a change after her final bodybuilding show. Weak from being dehydrated and undernourished and doing the physically taxing flexing and posing required in competition, Thornhill was resting in flip flops and a robe pulled over her competition suit when she received some motherly advice.

“So as I am sitting here, on the ground, heavily breathing, my mother looks me straight in the eyes, water-filled and all, and says that she no longer supports me doing this to my body and that I will kill myself if I continue to do so,” Thornhill told Medium.com. “This was the lowest point in my addiction — these deeply felt and true words coming from this amazing woman who birthed and raised me to be a strong and powerful woman, woke me up with a statement so piercing it could deafen crowds.”

Ironically, Thornhill was studying the benefits of proper nutrition and exercise and how to train other people as a kinesiology undergraduate major while she pushed herself past her own limits. It took five years for Thornhill to graduate from Stanislaus State and about the same amount of time to do the necessary physical and mental rehab to recover from the eating, exercise and emotional setbacks. She worked with a sports psychologist, a cognitive behavioral therapist and her primary physician. It helped her empathize with people who have addictions and motivated her to continue her education.

“I said, ‘I think I want to go to grad school because I want to teach people not to do what I did’ — and specifically women,” she said. “I don’t want women to take things to this extreme or (believe when) social media is telling people this is normal or healthy.”

Thornhill’s relationship with exercise has improved immensely thanks to her healing efforts and life experiences. She enjoys cycling, rock climbing, hiking and camping and now exercises for functionality and health over vanity. That’s a life lesson she shares.

“How I feel mentally is No. 1,” she said. “If I don’t enjoy an exercise, I’ll take a break.”

Thornhill’s love for research began during her undergrad years. She worked in the Exercise Physiology Lab at Stanislaus and enjoyed doing research there. She continued on that route and then took a teaching assistantship while working on her master’s degree in kinesiology at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.

A professional colleague connected her with RMU to pursue her Ph.D., specializing in human and sport performance. Though her doctorate program was fully online, Thornhill moved to Utah to make professional connections and gain experience in person.

Relocating to Utah County proved to be beneficial. She did interdisciplinary work with physical and occupational therapists. She collaborated on research with medical doctors at the Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine and acted as a residential research assistant in RMU’s Health, Medical and Rehabilitation Laboratory. She helped RMU’s doctor of medical science and Department of Physical Therapy programs, connecting with faculty, staff and students in a variety of projects.

In addition, she excelled as an RMU teaching fellow and an adjunct biology professor at Utah Valley University, earning a Faculty Senate Excellence Award this spring. She also worked in the Preventive Cardiology Unit at University of Utah Health as a clinical exercise physiologist.

Amidst all that, Thornhill somehow even managed to fit in time to work on comprehensive exams and a groundbreaking dissertation focusing on exploring the use of cannabis for physical and mental exercise performance and recovery in active adults to fulfill her demanding Ph.D. requirements.

How did she do it all and manage to tend to her collection of 200 plants and spend time with her goldendoodles Bruce and Chewy?

“I said no to everything,” Thornhill said. “I didn’t leave the house unless it was to teach or work. I just buckled down. I was so focused on getting this dissertation done.”

Thornhill’s efforts paid off. She was recently honored as Utah’s best university student as part of the 2024 Best of State awards, Utah’s premier recognition and awards program. RMU also won 2024 Best of State awards for best educational institution and best university administrator (President Cameron K. Martin).

Her research team won a top award at RMU, the Rocky Mountain Guide Award. She was also awarded the Scholarly Contribution and Recognition Award in December 2023 in her department for first-author contributions to a 10-chapter department research guidebook.

Laughter was her initial reaction when finding out about winning awards. It was a form of deflection, she said. But Thornhill admitted “it does feel good” that what she’s done is being recognized. It makes it “even more special” that her work positively impacts others.

“I didn’t need them (the awards) for validation. I think 22-year-old me, yes, I would have sought those out to get that validation,” she said. “I think through enjoying the process now and doing the work physically, mentally, spiritually, that’s where the validation really came from — is the work I’ve invested in, what I do, what I’m passionate about and who I am.”

Jody Genessy is a senior content writer with University Marketing and Communications at RMU.


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