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Alyssa Hersh is Undergraduate Researcher of the Year

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With Beaver blood already in her veins, Public Health student Alyssa Hersh knew Oregon State would be the perfect fit – socially and academically.

With a desire for a career in healthcare, she became more interested in Oregon State after speaking with a high school teacher who studied health promotion and health behavior in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

She also had personal reasons for choosing Oregon State.

“My sister was already at OSU, so there’s no way I could have ever been a Duck!” she says.

An active member in both the community and on campus, Alyssa felt at home from the beginning. Intrigued by her classes, she worked her way up to president of her sorority – Alpha Gamma Delta – and vice president of programming for the Panhellenic Council. She also is involved with Good Samaritan’s SCREEN program, and has been a member of Associate Professor Peggy Dolcini’s research team at the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families since 2009.

“I love the field of public health because there is so much that can be done with it and I know that it will be important to have that background in my professional career as I pursue medicine,” she says.

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Alyssa Hersh was recently named the college’s first Undergraduate Researcher of the Year.

Her hard work has paid off. Alyssa was recently named the college’s first Undergraduate Researcher of the Year – a new award to reward and encourage extracurricular scholarly contributions made by OSU undergraduates.

Alyssa started as a volunteer working on a federally funded HIV/STI translation study – Translation into Practice – before working her way up to a URAP apprentice and researcher. Translation research examines how evidence-based interventions are implemented in agencies in real life.

“She demonstrated excellent organizational and conceptual skills, a willingness to take on any task – however small – and has a strong grasp of qualitative research methods,” Peggy says. “Over time, Alyssa developed an ability to contribute substantively to the work and initiated an independent project on one of our studies. She is a great example of what our top undergraduates can accomplish. It is also an honor for the Hallie Ford Center.”

Alyssa’s project investigated the role of champions – personnel who ensure an intervention is implemented correctly into a given agency.

Once she identified the agencies’ champions, she then compared the data with how the agency initially decided to adopt the project RESPECT – an individual-level evidence-based HIV/STI intervention conducted in conjunction with HIV/STI testing.

“I hypothesized that champions would be less likely to emerge in agencies mandated to adopt the intervention versus agencies in which they voluntarily could seek out and choose the intervention,” she says. “I thought that the inability to participate in the decision to adopt RESPECT may result in fewer people who were willing to play the champion role for the program in the agencies, which could be an important consideration for any organization looking to adopt a new program.”

“She took the lead in conducting the analyses, interpreting the data and writing up the findings,” Peggy says. “Her contributions in this regard have been as significant and of equal or greater quality than many early stage graduate students.”

Alyssa found there were champions in about 85 percent of agencies, that there were fewer champions in agencies that mandated to adopt RESPECT than agencies that voluntarily adopted it, many executive directors named themselves as champions, and that most executive directors also participated in the decision-making process surrounding the intervention’s initial adoption.

“Interventions that strive to improve the health and well-being of individuals and families are crucial to the health of the overall community,” she says. “The things we learn from translation research will improve the process of getting evidence-based interventions out to these communities.”

Alyssa, who is expected to graduate in December 2013 with degrees in Public Health and International Studies, plans on applying to medical school to pursue MD/MPH with a strong focus on global health.

“Participating in public health research has given the concepts I learn in class a real-world applicability, and I was able to apply this knowledge to my research as I learned from every member of our research team,” she says. “My college experience would not have been as transformative nor preparatory for the future if I had not participated in undergraduate research.”