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Blonde woman with clear eye protection smiling in a laboratory setting

Pivoting a career to become a physician and give back along the way

By Gabs James

It was in her days as a hair stylist that got graduating microbiology senior Kendra Krebs interested in science. She was in the middle of bleaching a client’s hair when she was inspired to find out what chemicals caused the pigment to lift. That spark of interest helped her realize science might be more compelling to her than it had been back in high school.

While she appreciated the opportunity to make people love the way they look, especially the “Golden Agers” (clients over 65), she felt compelled to do more to improve their quality of life and mobility. It was then that she decided to combine her interpersonal skills, interest in science and compassion for people to become a doctor.

Krebs grew up in Salem, Oregon, and attended Salem Academy before pursing her cosmetology certification. With a new passion to pursue a career in healthcare she decided to take a leap and enroll at Western Oregon University. Quickly humbled by challenging chemistry courses and adapting to being a student at the university level, Krebs began to feel that maybe medical school was beyond her grasp. Then she took a biology course that, as she said, “lit the fire for me and changed my life,” by solidifying her belief she was on the right track.

Even with this renewed sense of direction, she had to make the tough decision to temporarily withdraw from her courses to help her family’s business through a challenging time.

When Krebs returned to college, she opted to transfer to Oregon State University because of its science program. She made an appointment with Dr. Linda Bruslind, instructor and lead advisor in the microbiology department, which had a lasting impact on her. She explained her uncommon story and was candid about her prior academic struggles as a nontraditional student with a deep desire to become a doctor.

Bruslind was clear and direct with her, “You can do it if you want to. You just have to figure out the way you learn best,” Krebs remembered her saying. Her advice to Krebs: “Talk to your professors, meet with them, go to office hours; you’ve got to put in the work.” Through frequent advising meetings, Bruslind became the champion Krebs needed to stay on track.

“Pinch me. This is just not real!”

Once Krebs found her way in the microbiology department, she flourished. She landed a research position in Dr. Deidre Johns’ lab in the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine working on Neisseria gonorrhoeae. This was particularly challenging and rewarding because of the potential real-world impact it could have. She remembers the nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, facility, and how mesmerizing it was during her college tour.

When she got the opportunity to use the instrumentation and learn from Dr. Patrick Reardon, the NMR facility director, she could not be more excited. “Pinch me. This is just not real!” she recalls. Participating in research at Oregon State provided her many unique opportunities for interlaboratory collaboration and to improve her critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

COVID-19 Impact

While pursuing her degree, Krebs also worked as a medical scribe at the Salem Hospital’s emergency department to gain clinical experience. Yet just a few months into her new job, the COVID-19 pandemic began. The atmosphere shifted as physicians and hospital personnel prepared for incoming COVID-positive patients. She was inspired by their unwavering commitment to put their lives on the line to care for those in desperate need day after day.

Although stressful at times, Krebs found scribing during the pandemic highly rewarding as it cultivated a deeper sense of community and teamwork. She continues to scribe at a family practice clinic in Salem and loves observing patient-provider interactions in a continuity of care setting.

Krebs initially found having all remote classes challenging. It was harder to ask questions and feel the energy that she loves about being in the science classroom space. It was like not being able to “scratch that itch” she said, but as time went on and everyone settled into virtual learning she was able to find creative ways to stay connected with her peers and professors.

Remote learning has also posed an additional challenge in her application cycle for medical schools with unexpected changes to the MCAT and program requirements for virtual interviews. Like so many others applying this cycle, she adapted to the situation and did not let it deter her from her goals. “It’s been a challenging experience but worth it. You put yourself out there and dig deep about how you want to answer some of the [application] questions, such as why you want to be a doctor, then hope the admissions committee believes you’d be a good fit for their program.”

Krebs is clear that she wants to work with underserved communities, rural communities and with seniors. She is currently in the 20-21 application cycle awaiting decisions. Regardless of the outcome this year, she plans to continue honing her learning, listening, teaching and leading skills — the merits of a great doctor.

Giving Back

Krebs cares about people. She has been a teaching assistant for the microbiology lab with Allison Evans and truly loved being an extra set of hands. She learned extensive leadership skills and connected with COMP-Northwest (Western University of Health Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest) while being the co-president of the Pre-SOMA Club (Pre-Student of Osteopathic Medicine Association).

Much of the other engagement she did throughout college involved giving back to the community. Family Science & Engineering Nights was one of her favorite opportunities. This program brings together Oregon State faculty and students and goes to local elementary schools to put on science fairs. Chemistry, math, engineering, and microbiology are some the departments routinely involved.

“What do I say to somebody who’s losing a loved one?”

“We actually go into the community and reach people, like little kids who’ve never had experiences [with science],” Krebs shared. Letting kids use a microscope for the first time and see their eyes light up in wonder have been unforgettable experiences for Krebs. Working closely with faculty like Bruslind at these events also allowed Krebs to both grow her own skillset through meaningful outreach, and have fun getting to know faculty off-campus.

Krebs’ interest in healthcare and working with seniors led her to volunteering at Samaritan Evergreen Hospice in Albany to see another side of medicine. Though she had minimal prior exposure to death, her compassion and empathy for those losing a loved one helped her to overcome any lingering uncertainties. “What do I say to somebody who’s losing a loved one?” She quickly learned the power of listening: hearing people’s stories and how to they talk about those dear to their hearts forever changed her. “People want to be seen. It’s not always about what you say that makes someone feel cared about.”

Get Involved

And to all the students just starting out here at OSU or elsewhere, Kendra Krebs wants you to get involved! “Choose something. Choose a club, choose something you believe in or care about. Get involved, and get to know the faculty. Your professors are your number one advocate.” Staff too, can make all the difference. Krebs encourages students to try to push through fear and ask questions or for help.

“You can work hard and move past the barriers that you’ve set up for yourself. You have a lot to give.”

At 36, Krebs has thought a lot about her journey, and can see the opportunities and privilege she has benefitted from throughout her life. When asked what she would tell her 18-year-old self, she shared that she’d tell herself: “You can work hard and move past the barriers that you’ve set up for yourself. You have a lot to give.” Krebs admitted to taking longer to graduate just so she could take advantage of the community and engagement options. “My experience at Oregon State has been absolutely the best that I could have imagined. I have had opportunity after opportunity.”