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Monday, September 25, 2023

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Katie Dillon (center) with her mentor and clinical neuroscientist Harsimran Baweja (left) and SDSU President Adela de la Torre at a Campanile Foundation event during the 2019-2020 academic year. Katie Dillon (center) with her mentor and clinical neuroscientist Harsimran Baweja (left) and SDSU President Adela de la Torre at a Campanile Foundation event during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Research Experience Ignites Passion for Teaching in Kinesiology Grad

Working in a physical therapy lab with an involved mentor pushed Katie Dillon out of her comfort zone and expanded her horizons.
By Padma Nagappan

Sometimes plans change simply because we change our minds about a decision. 
That’s what happened with Kathleen (Katie) Dillon who decided midway through her undergraduate career that she did not want to go on to graduate school for physical therapy.
Going from having a set plan to not knowing what she wanted to do next was an anxious time, but Dillon found reassurance and support while working in San Diego State University clinical neuroscientist Harsimran Baweja’s lab in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences. 
Dillon, who graduated in May with a B.S. in kinesiology, worked two jobs to pay for college and help support her family. Juggling work and full-time college seemed like an impossible task at times, but looking back, she found it made her stronger. 
She shared some of her experiences with the SDSU News Team.
Why did you choose SDSU?
I grew up in San Diego and wasn’t ready to leave for college. I come from a family of entrepreneurs who instilled a good work ethic in me. Science was my passion since I was a kid. With my sports background I automatically fell in love with kinesiology. It was extremely fascinating how every cell in our body works together to create movement. Combined with the location and SDSU’s amazing kinesiology department, the school quickly became my first choice. 
How did you learn about this research opportunity with Professor Baweja?
During my junior year, I decided I no longer wanted to go to graduate school for physical therapy. Making the jump to consider other options for a career were extremely scary for me because I am a planner. I decided to look into some research positions on the ENS website and applied through there. I was extremely interested in Dr. Baweja’s lab because he combined so many different platforms and knowledge to conduct his research.   
What did you work on in the lab? 
I focused on progressive supranuclear palsy which is an atypical Parkinson’s disease syndrome. In guiding me, Dr. Baweja focused more on the skill needed to do research, analyzing statistics, and presenting the research. I got to work with some graduate students, other undergrads, and many different professors. 
But most of all I got a lot of hands-on time with Dr. Baweja. He made sure to not only check in with me weekly but also teach me something new each week. My biggest project was the presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago. It’s the largest gathering of neuroscientists from around the world, with about 35,000 attendees each year and I received a travel scholarship to give a presentation. It gave me a glimpse of what a profession in research looks like. 
How was the experience and what are some insights you can share with students considering research?
I loved my experience in the research lab. It pushed me more than I had ever been pushed. I was forced to step out of my comfort zone, expand my thinking, and grow as a student. I would encourage everyone to consider research even if you do not see yourself pursuing it after graduation. 
Who you are as a professional will be shaped by your mentor and other students in the lab. Research is everywhere around us and it is important to know how it is conducted and what may be some pitfalls. 
In regards to research in the Kinesiology Department, it is extremely fun! You get to do hands-on experiments, learn new technology programs, and get to know your professors at a deeper level. 
How did the mentoring help you, and what led you to choose your current path, after graduation? 
I can not emphasize enough how great it is to have a supportive mentor. Dr. Baweja was my educator, boss, and mentor but mostly he was my support system. He made me feel okay about not having a plan, he gave me the peace of mind that we would figure it out together. It did not matter how busy we were, if I said I was having a bad day we would walk out of the lab, get a coffee, and just relax. 
He taught me that teachers are more than just educators, and showed me the impact that one teacher could have, and made me want to share that support with others. 
Because of my time in his lab I found my passion for teaching and leading. This led me to apply for Teach For America. I am currently teaching high school math in a low-income area of San Antonio, Texas where many students are teen parents or have had to work full-time and could not finish high school. I would not be here had it not been for my time in the lab and I will forever be grateful for the opportunities I’ve received because of my time in research. Dr. Baweja taught me how our lives are framed by the hardships we face. Much of what I have learned from him I use to support my students in finding their purpose.