Graduation profile: Passion for rural medicine shapes aspirations

Growing up in a town of less than 150 people tends to leave an impression on a person.  Emily Lenherr’s experience was such a positive one, she planned her future around returning to it. Lenherr, a senior from Windom, is a neurobiology major on her way to the University of Kansas Medical School in the fall. She’ll be part of the Scholars in Rural Health and Kansas Medical Student Loan programs with the plan of returning to her rural roots as a doctor.

Lenherr has always been fascinated by the brain and the way biology affects illness. She fell in love with KU after visiting campus on a high school Junior Day, and then fell hard for neurobiology, for its vastness and mystery. Lenherr plans to use that mystery to shed light on mental health in rural Kansas communities.

Emily Lenherr on the Cliffs of Moher while studying abroad in Dublin, Ireland.

You clearly have a passion for medicine, but rural medicine specifically. Why is that?

I grew up in rural Kansas, and I knew from the time that I can remember that I wanted to go back. It was really a formative experience being able to meet everyone and get really close to my community. I knew that I wanted to go back and practice medicine in a rural community. I feel like doctors in rural communities become not only doctors, but they also treat the whole person. It’s very holistic care. I knew that was the kind of medicine I wanted to practice; I want to know my patients on a personal level.

How did you settle on neurobiology as a major?

I did always want to study the brain. Mental health was something that was always very important and fascinating to me, and I was intrigued by the way biology affects illness. Knowing that, I felt neurobiology would be a great avenue. I think I stuck with it because it was always incredibly interesting and despite learning new things every class, I always felt like there was something more to learn.

Mental health is such a crucial topic right now. What do you hope to add to the conversation after medical school?

I’d like to start a non-profit program to educate rural Kansans on mental health. Hopefully it would start with students in high school. Education would be happening in schools, and you would also have a resource in the community, where there were people to talk to, there are therapists on staff and a lot of information available. I think many rural citizens don’t have a lot of ideas of the different resources available to them when struggling with mental health conditions. I want to be an advocate for them and to provide the resources, the time and the commitment to educate people about mental health, to tell them that it’s okay. One out of three people struggle with a mental health disorder, so it’s not something to be stigmatized, because it’s everywhere.

Why did you become a Jayhawk?

I kind of always had an idea. We were always KU fans, so it was kind of the dream that Emily goes to KU. Then I fell in love with the campus. I went to a Junior Day, and everyone was so welcoming. And even though it was huge – and I knew that it was huge – it felt like I had already found a family.

Tell me more about finding a family at KU.

I was a little apprehensive, because I am from a small place – and KU is not small – but I found a wonderful family in Miller Scholarship Hall. I just kind of walked in, and I knew right away. You’re with 49 other women, but right away they make you feel like you’re at home. I think that was a really formative experience, being able to walk in and know that I had a family away from where I came from. That was really special – already having that close-knit group of friends coming in my freshman year.

What is your favorite KU memory?

It’s so hard! There are so many. I would say one of my first months at Miller Scholarship Hall, I was sitting out on the steps, and I was talking with a friend. Before I knew it, there were like four or five girls joined us. As we kept talking, more and more girls came up, and all of a sudden I was hit by this overwhelming sensation that, “Wow! Look around. I have a family here.” It was right then that I knew that I belonged at KU. That was really special.

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Emily Lenherr in Bray, Ireland while studying abroad in Dublin.

What is something extraordinary about you that I’d never guess?

I don’t know if it’s extraordinary – as a biology major it’s probably unexpected – but I really love to write poetry and prose. I started writing when I was about seven. I had notebooks full of stories and prose that I wrote almost every day. I always found writing so comforting, and I loved the way words can beautifully express emotions and feelings so accurately. Since then, I’ve been consistently writing for fun, relaxation, and even therapy sometimes.

Do you feel like your more creative side helps your scientific side in any way?

I think so. I think being able to think about facts in maybe a more abstract way has helped me process the sometimes overwhelming amounts of information that I learn. It also provides a great release. Sometimes you cannot look at science for too long before you’re like “that’s enough.”

What is the best advice you ever got?

It was actually from my mom. She’s going to love this. It was just a couple days before I left home, and she told me life is full of surprises. At first I was like that is so cheesy, and just my mom being my mom. I have always been a very planned and organized person, but that was the best advice. KU has been really full of surprises, but sometimes the surprises turn out to be the best memories. It’s always been the things that I wasn’t expecting that turned out to be the best parts of KU.

What advice would you give current or future KU students?

Try as much as you can – at least your first year. Sometimes it’s just the things you never expect that knock you off your feet. Don’t be afraid to try something you would never expect yourself to enjoy. You don’t really find your passions at KU until you’re just submerged in them.