For Kirsten Hokeness, Ph.D., “go big or go home” doesn’t cut it.
“It’s go big or stay at work,” she says with a laugh.
The director of Bryant University’s School of Health and Behavioral Sciences has lived this motto since joining the Bryant faculty sixteen years ago. At the time, Bryant had just introduced its first science major, environmental science, and the university was building out new laboratory facilities on campus in Smithfield.
“Pretty quickly, I said: ‘We should launch Biology,’” says Hokeness. “I love a challenge, and I saw a lot of value in building something here. That was one of the most exciting things about coming to Bryant. It was cool to create something from scratch.”
In her first few years, Hokeness taught seven courses ranging from first-year biology to biotechnology to microbiology. All the while, she worked to recruit new students to the growing Biology program, emphasizing mentorship opportunities and the power of Bryant’s interdisciplinary education model, where young scientists also gain foundational skills in business.
“We relied heavily on athletics for recruitment, building core structures so athletes could be successful,” she says. “I worked with the coaches and I said, ‘Look, I will take every recruit on a tour. Here's my cell number.’ I enjoyed talking to parents and prospective students; I found a skillset and my confidence started to grow in my job here.”
Hokeness sold families on the undergraduate experience she didn’t get to have at the University of New Hampshire, where she felt adrift amid a massive student body. An aspiring physician, Hokeness earned the grades to attend medical school, but she didn’t feel confident enough to apply after graduation. She decided to take a gap year and landed a job at Roger Williams Hospital working in cancer immunology research. She also shadowed physicians during procedures and, during a bronchoscopy, quickly learned she had a hard time seeing patients in pain.
“I realized I really loved the research piece. I loved studying health and illness and understanding it and diving really deep,” she says. Her advisor suggested she apply to Brown’s Ph.D. program in medical sciences. She was accepted, and completed the program in five years, after which she took a research-heavy postdoctoral position at Brown. That same year, she accepted a tenure-track professorship at Bryant.
“I was on a path, and I was like: I'm never letting this go.”
“My mom was a nurse, but she always wanted to be a physician. So she always pushed me to be as much as I could be and do as much as I could do,” Hokeness says. “There were probably parts of her that were upset that I didn't go to medical school, because that was her dream. But keeping this going would make her pretty proud, I think.”
Her mom died of ALS nine years ago, the same year Hokeness gave birth to her twin son and daughter and earned tenure.
“I remember managing all those things and putting papers together and bouncing one kid while the other one was screaming,” she says. “I made it somehow. I was on a path, and I was like: I'm never letting this go.”
Hokeness soon became eligible to chair the Biological and Biomedical Sciences department she helped build. She began envisioning the future of health sciences at Bryant and found an ally in Psychology Professor Joe Trunzo, Ph.D.
“There are so many students who double major in Biology and Psychology, and we saw this natural link, so we created a community that bridged them together with events and resources,” Hokeness says.
At one point, Hokeness and Trunzo were afforded an opportunity to write a grant proposal to support the purchase of a piece of equipment.
“In theory, that sounds amazing,” she says. “It bothered me intuitively, though, to use all these resources to buy one piece of equipment. So we decided to build something sustainable. And that's where we forged the idea for the Center for Health and Behavioral Sciences to support faculty research, faculty-student research, and program development.”
As faculty published papers and presented at conferences, the center, which launched in 2021, became a force that was hard to ignore. At the same time, the nation was emerging from pandemic-related restrictions, and health — both physical and mental — remained top of mind for many Americans.
“Joe and I really felt confident that Bryant could provide opportunities for students to be trained more holistically in health and healthcare and to be better employees for it,” she says. The pair pitched Provost and Chief Academic Officer Rupendra Paliwal, Ph.D., on the idea of a School of Health and Behavioral Sciences, which would unite undergraduate health sciences programming and the successful graduate-level Physician Assistant program. With Paliwal’s support, the school launched in the summer of 2022.
One such plan is Bryant’s first Healthcare Summit on May 6, a day-long event with keynote speakers, panels, and roundtable discussions dedicated to systemic issues in the field.
“If you have a small success, make it bigger.”
“We've worked hard to collaborate with employers to figure out their pain points, which inform how we develop our programming for the School of Health and Behavioral Sciences,” says Hokeness. “A lot of the programming for the Healthcare Summit came through those conversations.”
As she plans the summit and leads the new school, Hokeness is looking to the future. She sees areas of opportunity in the Physician Assistant program, which she plans to grow from 46 students to 60. She and Trunzo, who serves as deputy director of the School of Health and Behavioral Sciences, are also exploring ways Bryant might alleviate some of the pressure on Rhode Island’s mental health care system.
“I always feel like there's more — like there's another step,” she says. “If you have a small success, make it bigger.”
Hokeness is going big, to be sure, but she’s still committed to putting in the work by teaching first-year biology.
“I want those students to feel like they belong here. That they're important. That even if they're struggling, they can do this. I, too, went to college and got a 52 on my first exam. And it's okay,” she says.
It’s equally important, Hokeness says, for her to stay connected to students. She needs to know who she’s leading — and for them to know her, too.
“I can show them that you can be successful in what you do at work, but also still be a mom and get your kids to dance and go to basketball games,” she says. “Ultimately, the root of it is: You can be you.”
To learn more about Bryant University’s School of Health and Behavioral Sciences, visit Bryant.edu/SHB