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Educator Spotlight: Christine Harper, M.S.

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By Janet Hulstrand

Christine Harper PhotoIn 2005, Christine Harper, M.S., attended a Washington, DC, conference—a gathering of contemplative scholars and scientists in the areas of medicine, psychology and neuroscience. “They were discussing with the Dalai Lama the clinical impact of meditation on the body,” Ms. Harper says. Among the speakers was her father, Dr. John Sheridan, a neuroimmunologist who was presenting his research on the effect of stress on the immune system. The conference inspired her to learn more, and in the years following, she studied the research and learned how to practice meditation herself.

Today, Ms. Harper is Assistant Dean of Admissions and Student Affairs at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (UKCD), where she sees some dental students struggle academically as they face the significant stress and anxiety involved in managing a rigorous curriculum. After reviewing the literature on the potential for meditation as an evidence-based intervention, and knowing the positive effects of her own personal experience with meditation, she looked for ways to integrate this practice into the UKCD curriculum, with the goal of helping students improve their academic outcomes.

“Anxiety and rumination make it incredibly challenging to focus and retain information,” Ms. Harper says. “Mindful meditation engages the parasympathetic nervous system in activating the relaxation response, which aids in stress reduction. Consistent practice has been shown to increase attention, as well as awareness of the mind wandering.” She points out that these outcomes are exceedingly helpful for effective studying.

In 2014, she was able to introduce pilot mindful meditation content into the UKCD curriculum in a special topics course for first-year students. “Significant research supports this practice as an intervention for areas of concern specific to our students, such as stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, pain and even building empathy and compassion,” Ms. Harper says. 

While there was some initial skepticism about teaching students “to breathe” in an already packed curriculum, faculty and the college leadership were willing to support the pilot initiative. Students were overwhelmingly appreciative of the opportunity to learn mindful meditation, and due to the positive response to the pilot, UKCD supported additional training for Ms. Harper and one other faculty member. 

Ms. Harper now offers structured classes in Koru Mindfulness®, described as “an evidence-based curriculum specifically designed for teaching mindfulness, meditation and stress management to college students and other young adults” throughout the year. She also offers individual appointments with students and drop-in meditation sessions for those who have completed the class. She is also planning to lead a couple of half-day retreats at the end of each semester, if and when the schedule allows, and is working on getting approval to offer a course for elective credit. 

Currently, UKCD students in all four years receive an introduction to the concept of mindful meditation, as well as exposure to experiential practices during orientation. According to Ms. Harper, many undergraduate institutions already offer mindful meditation that dental students can access through their wellness or counseling centers. Some dental schools are also beginning to offer meditation as a portion of their wellness curricula, and Ms. Harper says she has received many inquiries from other colleges, as well as from UKCD faculty and staff, about the work she is doing.

For those faculty who would like to introduce mindful meditation into their curricula, Ms. Harper suggests starting with a thorough environmental scan to assess what activities related to mindfulness are already available on campus. “Begin small and build interest, while looking for an opportunity to introduce this more broadly in an impactful way,” she says, adding, “Building champions of this work within the ranks of the faculty, staff and student body is helpful in getting traction.” 

Some faculty may be hesitant to introduce meditation into the curriculum because of its roots in eastern religious practices. Harper stresses that mindful meditation is a secular practice meant to build awareness and self-compassion. 

“The greatest benefit to adding mindfulness training into a dental school curriculum is that we are providing knowledge and training on a skill that can be used any time of the day, at any stage of life, with a plethora of positive benefits,” Ms. Harper says. “We live in a fast-paced, technology-driven, distracted world, and the benefit of slowing down to check in with yourself is an action that we should strive to cultivate. Increasing attention and focus, enhancing listening skills and lowering stress levels are all beneficial outcomes, not just for us as individuals—it can lead to developing more compassionate, engaged health care practitioners.”


Congratulations Christine.
Posted by: Mary A Bailey at 2/28/2017 10:11 PM

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