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Researcher, activist finds a new avenue for advocacy through her future role as a physician

Diana Zychowski

Diana Zychowski at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital in Roanoke, Virginia

Prior to her start in medical school at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Diana Zychowski’s life revolved around statistics and research, fueled by a desire to give back to her community.

The first in her family to attend college, the Chicago native studied math and molecular and cellular biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While there, she earned a Howard Hughes funded undergraduate research fellowship. After graduating in 2008, Zychowski kept on that research path, eventually earning her master’s degree in public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“While pursuing my MPH, I worked within Chicago needle exchange clinics to learn more about medication adherence for those who were HIV positive and actively using drugs,” Zychowski said. “Through that moment, I had a lot of personal connections that made me more interested in the intersection of addiction and infectious disease and how that can affect ones wellbeing in and out of the hospital.”

It was that type of personal connection that led Zychowski to decide to apply to medical school. “I wanted the opportunity to make sense of the people and pathological processes that led to the research data,” Zychowski said. “I also wanted a better understanding of disease, clinical decision-making, and the practical day-to-day implementation of evidence-based medicine.”

Zychowski found her next home at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, where she is now a fourth-year student.

“I felt like the school was made for me. I wanted something that was research-intensive but also proactive in the community,” Zychowski said. “When I came for my interview, I wasn’t just interviewed by faculty, I also met with community members. I thought that was really unique.”

She also found a new patient population to consider with her research. “Roanoke is not a big urban environment like I was used to in Chicago, but substance use is still prevalent, including prescription pills or opioids. It was important to see how this was affecting my new community.”

Like many other Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine students, Zychowski began volunteering at the Bradley Free Clinic. Through the clinic, she discovered the Roanoke Valley HOPE Initiative, a program that provides access to programs and other resources to help people in the community who are suffering from substance use disorders.

The program holds at least monthly community-based drop-in sessions for drug users or their family members. “I got to see how their occupations, relationships or just their day-to-day activities were personally impacted by addiction,” Zychowski said.

“My work with the HOPE Initiative prompted me to look closer at those with hepatitis C who also inject drugs. We were eager to find out whether or not they would benefit from a needle syringe exchange program in the area.” Zychowski worked on that research with Thomas Kerkering, professor of internal medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

Zychowski’s work to bridge public health with research and clinical practice brings her passions together. “I like to promote community engagement and offset that with empowering people to take better control of their own health including physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.”

When she graduates from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in May, Zychowski plans to enter an internal medicine residency, then later specialize in infectious disease with a focus on individuals with addiction or mental health issues.

Zychowski is the second Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine student to receive the Caroline Osborne Memorial Scholarship. Caroline was a member of the medical school’s charter class who succumbed to cancer before she was able to graduate. Her parents established the scholarship in her honor.

“Caroline felt the school was very, very special,” Carl Osborne said. “Starting a scholarship in her memory was the one thing we could think of that would capture her spirit and what a special place this was for her. What she was unable to accomplish in life, the scholarship can help others achieve.”

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