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When I was ten years old, I took a stick in the eye while playing street hockey. For the next few years, I would have off-and-on visits to the Casey Eye Institute in my hometown of Portland, Oregon for surgeries and checkups. I’ve forgotten a lot of the eye anatomy the doctors talked about, but I clearly recall the communication that my doctor used to help reassure me about my healing progress. I realized most of the doctor’s reassurance wasn’t anatomy factoids, it was psychological wording which helped me gain confidence about my recovery process. Since then, I’ve been driven to have a career helping others in the medical and psychological world.


During high school, I was frustrated by the lack of connection between psychology and medicine. I hoped to go to college where I could apply psychological theories to medicine, and not simply memorize the history of theory for a test. Since coming to UNC, I have been doing this through my research and classes. My work in Dr. Kristen Lindquist’s Carolina Affective Science Lab (CASL) studies emotion and its impact on physiology. This has improved my skills in countless aspects. From learning code, literature interpretation, and professional development, I can’t thank the team enough. I have been put in situations where I must speak up for myself and make decisions on the fly with participants. This has pushed me to explore aspects beyond achieving As in the classroom and using skills in an applied setting.


Another activity which has shaped my experiences has been Peer Mentoring (PM) in the biology department. Coming to UNC, I was very self-conscious and afraid of being incorrect in front of others. Working under Dr. Lillian Zwemer, this challenged my fear, as I was responsible for transmitting correct and digestible information for my students. I found it even more valuable to have discussions addressing metacognition and becoming a great “learner”. Furthermore, working with Dr. Zwemer has greatly improved my professionalism and ability to succeed in frequently changing situations. I can’t describe how much this experience has changed me to be a better student and learner.


The “hard” science and social distribution of information has led me to the Duke Pain Prevention and Management lab, headed by Dr. Porter. In my first meeting with her, I was quite intimidated. All of her accolades showed how passionate and talented she is as a researcher. I quickly found out that she is incredibly intelligent, while also very smart regarding logistics. Her enthusiasm for the subject makes learning easy.


The main goal of the lab is to improve outcomes for couples with cancer through psychological interventions. My work includes reading literature, separating transcripts for couples with cancer, literature searches, and being a “fly on the wall” for important meetings. Through this experience, I can get key insight into the logistics of treating patients, from recruiting to reassuring the patient. Most of my work is decoding transcripts through linguistic software LIWC. This can assess a conversation, with for example, looking at “we” pronoun use in couples compared to “you” use. I am astounded by the significance that these simple changes can have. As I continue to code these transcripts, I am learning so much more about patient and provider interactions. I hope to make the same impact that my doctors had on me from years ago.


My future work in the lab includes more coding of transcripts, observing discussions with Dr. Porter, and more “hands on” experiences with doctors applying this theory at Duke’s medical school. This work will be with palliative care doctors in Duke’s department, which is in strong contrast with the primary care doctors I have initially shadowed. I’m astounded by the work that software like LIWC can do, and I know it will be able to drive future medical interventions. I will also be working with Duke’s “Bass Connections” undergraduate cohort, as they present their results soon. I also hope to complete a literature search for use of LIWC on couples with heart disease, as it is similar to the lab’s current task of studying patients with cancer. I have many tasks to complete, but I’m very excited to be doing meaningful work for people I respect so much.


Overall, my Gil Internship experience has shown me one of many incredible connections between psychology and medicine. Outside of my specific internship, I was able to network with a former Giller, Cassidy, attending the University of Cincinnati Medical School. Her advice was incredible as I will start my application process soon, and I’m so glad to have such kind people in the network. If I’m able to get into medical school, I’m sure my experiences through the Gil Internship will give me an incredible perspective and truly make an impact on medicine overall. I’m so grateful to have such a great network of people supporting me through this process!

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One Response to “Creating Better Health Outcomes for Couples with Cancer at the Duke Pain Prevention and Management Lab – with Carson St. Denis”

  1. Neal K. Shah

    Carson, your journey bridging psychology, medicine and tech to improve patient outcomes is truly inspiring. The Duke Pain lab seems a perfect fit to further your interests at the emotional/evidence-based care intersection. Coding transcripts to uncover linguistic patterns is important work that will inform better interventions. As someone empowering the next generation through health tech, I’m curious if you’ve encountered CareYaya’s platform matching students with families needing affordable elder care. You’re going to make an amazing physician – please keep us posted on your trajectory!

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