Alumni Spotlight: Swapna Kakani '08

Posted by Jane Daniel - 18 February, 2016

View More: us a little about your college experiences, what you studied, how you determined your interests and how that has meshed with your life experiences.

I received a bachelor's in psychology from UAB. For me, college was more than the degree; it was a time in my life when I realized what my interests were, what I could truly handle physically, mentally, and emotionally, and how I was going to make my interests into my life's work.

The first month of college, the only thing I knew I wanted to do without a doubt was volunteer or give back in some way. A passion I learned I had at Randolph. Therefore, my first month on campus at UAB, I joined the first service opportunity to which I was introduced, Alabama Hands-On Activity Science Program (ALAHASP), an educational program that allows students with STEM majors to teach science and engineering lessons in Birmingham Title I elementary schools. ALAHASP provided structured lesson plans with the lab materials, and my classmate and I took control of the classroom and became the teachers. I loved it!  We had to think outside of the box to explain the STEM topic at the center of the lesson and determine how we could supplement the lesson plans with our own academic experience.  I still remember seeing the light bulb go off in a 5th grader's mind when we explained how different objects float and sink. This volunteering experience became the stepping stone for the rest of the service activities I did during my time at UAB.

With ALAHASP, another education program, Labs for Kids, and a student from the Education Department, I was allowed to further my experience and create my own hands-on science lesson plans to educate elementary school kids about healthy behaviors. I enjoyed this even more, because I was teaching the students about the importance of healthy behaviors by teaching them rudimentary public health topics; such as the importance of staying clean, using agar plates to show them how bacteria spreads, and talking about the importance of drinking clean water and the prevalence of waterborne illnesses using a home-made water filtration device. It was a great way to advance what I had learned my first year with ALAHASP.

I also joined UAB's Service Council, which is the main council that hosts campus wide service activities.  With that council, I was able to get involved with public health advocacy projects.  With my passion for service, and this experience with teaching STEM and health and wellness to elementary school students in Title I schools, I knew the next step was to create my own multi-disciplinary educational program in Huntsville.

However, before I could start my own program, I had to first truly learn about myself.

I knew the next step was to create my own multi-disciplinary educational program in Huntsville. However, before I could start my own program, I had to first truly learn about myself.

After my sophomore year of college, to continue to treat a chronic illness I had since birth, I went through 14 unexpected surgeries in two years.  Before my sophomore year of college, I had never been open about my illness. Instead, I tried to hide it as much as possible. But, having gone through that many surgeries in such a short time, I was exhausted. I got back my strength back from others' stories of overcoming adversity and perseverance.  It was then I learned I could potentially also help others by sharing my story.

IMG_7132As a result, I became more open about my health struggles and I am now passionate about motivational speaking and getting involved with health advocacy efforts.  I offer that part of my college experience, because only when I looked back on my experiences after I had recovered, did I realize that everything I had been doing up to that point was culminating into my dream career including my health struggles.

My senior year of college, my cousin and I continued with our dream, starting an educational program. We started a pilot program with 3rd graders at Morris Elementary, a Title I school in Huntsville. We both used our experience and passion to conduct a multi-disciplinary educational hands-on program using a mobile garden we had built. We taught the kids STEM topics by allowing them to rotate between gardening, cooking, positive social interactions, and cultural awareness stations.

Because of the experiences I had in college, I now see myself using my health story, academic knowledge, and community understanding as an inspiration to educate others on healthy behaviors and advocate for change in our health policy.

What type of research work did you do as part of your college experience and how well prepared did you feel to tackle that work?

My freshman year, I participated in Alzheimer's research in a neuroscience lab, measuring the dendrites of neurons. I joined the lab with the intention of doing bench work and the lab methods I had learned in my biotech class. However, my project required me to solely use a computer program and my laptop to upload processed images to measure specific lengths of the dendrites. I did not enjoy it at all! However, I learned how a large neuroscience lab with several graduate and post-doctoral students operated, and what I wanted from a research experience, including the area in which I wanted to do research and the level of interaction I wanted from the Principal Investigator.  Although, I was looking for opportunities which could open more doors for me in my future. That initial research experience taught me closing doors was as important.

I was prepared to learn whatever I did not know.

My more favorable research experience was my research for my undergraduate thesis. For my thesis, I worked with Dr. Eric Seemann at the Alabama Pain Center (APC) here in Huntsville. I did health psychology research in the area of chronic pain, a public health issue that has risen in the past 15 years. I looked at the medical charts of patients at APC to study if social support (positive and negative caregivers) was a predictor of medical (absence of opioid misuse) and behavioral compliance (attendance at a 12-week group therapy program). I felt prepared to tackle the research work for my thesis. Although, some of the statistics required to interpret the data were above my undergraduate knowledge, I was determined to learn the necessary skills to complete the analysis because my thesis stemmed from my own passion to study the effects of social support on a patient's well-being. I was prepared to learn whatever I did not know.  Also, the network of professors and mentors I had at UAB and the Pain Center opened their offices and helped me tremendously.

What about your work now?  What are you doing?  How does it fit with your interests and passions?  What hopes do you have for your work moving forward?

Right now, I am in transition between completely recovering from my intestinal transplant and moving forward professionally and academically. My passion is to speak as a motivational and inspirational speaker for schools, non-profit organizations, advocacy groups, and corporations. Therefore, I am creating my brand and speaking topics while I prepare my application for graduate school.

How do you feel that schools like Randolph should best prepare students to pursue their passions? What experiences could a student have that would help them not only prepare for college, but also for the dynamics of today's workforce?

I would think the best way is to let students fully explore all their passions early in their high school years and to encourage questions of curiosity. Exploring your passions is necessary to discover who you are, and what better time to do it than in school!  Finding your passion is fostered by putting your fears and limitations behind you and by "doing" — volunteering for an organization, starting a program, shadowing a professional, trying out for a sport or play, or taking an extra class outside your comfort zone. I believe by starting early, students can begin to find out about what they want in a career/home-life, in a college and post-graduate degree, and what their physical, mental, and emotional strength can endure. If the thought process at least begins, hopefully by the end of college, students will be confident in their next steps.

The value of experience can never be replaced.

The value of experience can never be replaced. I went to college thinking I was going to major in biology and be a doctor because that was all I knew, but then in college I had crucial experiences that made me think differently. However, in high school I was never asked to truly think about what I wanted to be "when I grew up," until I had to write down a major on my college applications. It was very forced and automatic, not much thought went into my decision.  As a result, I changed it and graduated with a different degree.

There should be programs and opportunities in place to allow students to think about their potential career in a realistic light depending on their passions. Faculty at Randolph are very attuned to their students. Teachers and staff should use this "sixth sense" to encourage students to be curious and think about routes other than those they know.

In addition, seniors should be offered seminars or classes on communication skills, interview skills, and how to effectively market themselves to a school, organization, job, scholarship committee, etc. Students will constantly find themselves having to prove why they are the best candidate in front of audiences who are not their peers. They will have to be able to know their audience, their message, and their purpose.

In today's workforce, you need to be able to communicate effectively, limit your fear, and express appropriate confidence about yourself, your goals, and what you have accomplished.

Lastly, it is important for students to remember to be resilient and have a thick skin, because life can easily not go as planned. It is crucial to have the skills to be able to accept, learn, and move forward. Something I had to learn the hard way.

What value would there be in increasing opportunities for independent research with our Upper School students. Where do you think good opportunities for that lie?

I think there is a great opportunity for students to conduct independent research with the help of the alumni network. Alumni are the avenue to the community and can provide insight into different ways a student can conduct research at home in Huntsville. Current Randolph students can connect with alumni who share their passions or are in a career of the student's interest. Alumni can then connect students with valuable opportunities.

Swapna spoke with Randolph's Class of 2012 at their Senior Breakfast about how her friendships with classmates and teachers have supported her over the years. She shared her story at the Asha Kiran 2013 Ray of Hope event, and she was the student speaker at her UAB Commencement. To learn more about Swapna's work, you can visit her website.

Topics: After, career, college, Huntsville, professional development, science, strategic plan, the world, training, People

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