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Amazing Student: Melissa McGranahan

  |   Anika Chaturvedi   |   Permalink   |   Amazing Students,   Students and Faculty

Melissa McGranahan (B.S.Ed. ’14, M.S.Ed. ’18, Ph.D. ’23) centers her research on the intersection of exercise and mental health—particularly for women, whom she noticed were often excluded in research despite having higher levels of mental health-related disorders and lower levels of physical activity.

“As a researcher, I get to help change that and ensure women are included in research that will hopefully improve women’s well-being in practical ways,” she said.

As a graduate student in the Mary Frances Early College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, she taught multiple undergraduate courses, supervised informal labs, participated as a member of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, and most recently, received an Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award from UGA.

  • Hometown: McHenry, Illinois
  • Degree objective: Ph.D. in kinesiology, emphasis in exercise psychology
  • Degree(s): B.S.Ed. in exercise and sport science, M.S.Ed. in kinesiology/exercise physiology

You earned your undergraduate and master’s degrees at UGA. What made you choose to attend UGA and continue here for your Ph.D.?

 Initially, a big draw to UGA was that one of my older sisters went to UGA. She would call in December and describe the 70-degree weather, while I was stuck in the great white tundra that is Illinois. When I started my academic path, I wanted to be a physical therapist, and when I was looking at kinesiology programs, UGA’s program had an excellent reputation of preparing students for post-professional graduate programs. Once I was in the program, I knew I had made the right choice, but through my courses and involvement with research, I realized my passion for scientific inquiry.

Not only was the education I was receiving incredible, but our department encouraged community outreach. The Center for Physical Activity and Health has a long history of providing exercise-based interventions. Dr. Ellen Evans is the faculty member who takes the lead in offering lower cost membership for older community members. She and her team provide morning classes, which are led by our students. This provides safe and structured exercise programs, enabling individuals to maintain physical activity later in life.

Dr. Kevin McCully, with the help of his graduate students, developed a practicum where students from the exercise and sport science major work and design exercise training programs for individuals with various disabilities. As an undergraduate, I took part in his course and enjoyed the hands-on aspect and being able to use the information I was learning to help others improve their health. Higher education is a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow, but there is a need to use that information to improve the lives of those in our community and the Department of Kinesiology has those structures in place.

In my master’s program, I was fortunate enough to work under the direction of Dr. Nathan Jenkins. While his area of research is cardiovascular health and exercise, he was open to me incorporating psychological aspects into my research. After two degrees focused on physiology, I knew I wanted to enhance my knowledge in psychological research.

The exercise psychology program at UGA is known for producing high-caliber researchers that have gone on to be leading experts in the field of exercise psychology. I believe a big part of that is because of our faculty members. Both Dr. Rod Dishman and Dr. Patrick O’Connor have completed diverse research, using techniques ranging from animal work to large epidemiological studies. Their breadth of knowledge in both psychology and physiology is profound and is vital for developing skilled researchers.

One of the major reasons I chose to stay at UGA for my Ph.D. was because of my mentor Dr. Patrick O’Connor. Dr. O’Connor challenges students to view research from different perspectives and to branch out to other areas to help strengthen their understanding of different areas of interest. Additionally, he advocates for students and understands that we are more than just students—that we have lives outside of academia. He consistently encourages students to work smarter, not harder, and to celebrate major milestones and accomplishments. I am truly grateful for his mentorship over the years.

Why are you passionate about your field?

 I remember as an undergraduate student reading physiology papers and consistently seeing how women were excluded. While women have higher rates of mental health-related disorders and lower physical activity levels, they are often excluded from physiologically based studies. As a researcher, I get to help change that and ensure women are included in research that will hopefully improve their well-being in practical ways.

How did your undergraduate experience influence your research and work as a graduate teaching assistant?

Looking back, my undergraduate experience instilled in me an appreciation for research and the scientific method. In most of my classes, we discussed the scientific process and how to develop and test a hypothesis. My classes also pointed out how there is still much more to learn! Having a college career can help us all determine what gifts and talents we each have and how best to use those to serve our community and society.

As far as teaching, I had wonderful professors that served as important role models. I learned something valuable from each one of my undergraduate professors about how to present information in engaging ways and how to encourage students to help facilitate learning. I think teachers can challenge students while being kind and caring in ways that can improve a student’s self-confidence and self-efficacy.

When I teach, I try to create an environment where students feel comfortable asking and answering questions. The more students engage and are inquisitive, the more they learn. As an instructor, I hope to help prepare the next generation of clinicians and researchers; encouraging a love of learning is an essential part of this goal.

What are your plans following graduation?

 Following graduation, I plan to take a little time to travel and celebrate the completion of my degree! Following a little rest, I plan on completing a post-doctorate position. After this, I hope to become a professor at a Research I institution. I want to continue with my research and work to improve our understanding of the benefits of exercise for mental health.
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