Written by Zoe Engels, Contributing Writer and Editor
As passionate advocates for organ, eye, and tissue donation, many SODA alumni choose to pursue careers in healthcare and medicine. If you’re one such student and are interested in learning more about how SODA alumni have taken their passions and turned them into careers, then you’ll want to keep reading. We caught up with Alyson Pollard, a founding member of SODA at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell) and current nurse at Lahey Hospital on the Liver and Kidney Transplant Floor, to explore her career trajectory and get her advice for students.
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You can find the newly released MCAT test dates here.
A SODA Alumna’s Journey into Medicine
In January of 2021, Alyson Pollard helped bring SODA to UMass Lowell’s campus with support from her local Organ Procurement Organization, New England Donor Services (NEDS). Alyson had already been working at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, first as an intern looking specifically at living donor liver transplant information and, later, as a research assistant.
She knew she wanted to pursue her passions for helping others and organ, eye, and tissue donation with a career in medicine. So, she signed up to volunteer at NEDS, where a volunteer coordinator asked her, “Why don’t you start a SODA chapter?”
Alyson sprang into action, co-founding SODA at UMass Lowell and serving as its President.
We caught up with Alyson back when she was a senior at UMass Lowell in Spring 2022. To read more about the origins of her passion for organ donation and her journey to starting a SODA chapter, check out that blog post here.
She graduated from UMass Lowell in 2022 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and then immediately entered their Nursing PhD program in Fall 2022. While she pursues her PhD, Alyson is also working as a nurse at Lahey Hospital on the Liver and Kidney Transplant Floor. In her area of research, she focuses on improving the mental health of patients with End-Stage Liver Disease.
“Both NEDS and SODA were, and still are, so supportive in my experiences educating and advocating for organ donation,” Alyson told SODA via email. “I still feel like I can ask either group for help at any time. … Without their support, I wouldn’t have been able to successfully start and fund SODA at UMass Lowell!”
Find out if there’s a SODA chapter on your campus or apply to start a chapter at sodanational.org/students.
Alyson commemorating the completion of her research assignment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell's Solomon School of Nursing.
While Alyson held a few different leadership positions prior to becoming the President of SODA at UMass Lowell, each helping her hone different skills, she said her leadership role in the SODA chapter taught her how to be creative.
“I am extremely passionate about organ donation, but I quickly realized that not everyone had the passion, or the energy, to attend meetings on a regular basis,” she said. “College students are often always tired, so I needed to find meeting ideas that still educated and advocated for organ donation while also being somewhat relaxing.”
They pivoted. Meetings shifted from being predominantly lecture-oriented to art focused, including NEDS shirt tie-dye days, organ shaped cookie decorating, and a Donate Life night of painting rocks to raise awareness for organ, eye, and tissue donation on campus. With this pivot, they saw their event attendance improve.
Still, Alyson said her favorite SODA memory includes the chapter’s second meeting ever. Two transplant surgeons from Lahey Hospital, Drs. Yee Lee Cheah and Caroline Simon, came to speak about the logistics and impact of organ transplantation on transplant patients.
“I had personally seen the impact from these two surgeons firsthand, but it was so inspiring to see the passionate engagement of chapter members during this talk,” Alyson said. “Students from various majors asked a variety of questions that connected their academic interests with transplant experiences. I could see them learning more deeply about organ donation as the meeting continued.”
Alyson said her experiences as a SODA leader and NEDS volunteer helped increase her level of compassion, too, which is a skill not taught in medical school.
“Through my time with SODA and NEDS, I learned about personal experiences during organ donation, which have helped me to see each patient as a person, not just as a patient,” she explained. “I feel that I can reach patients at a deeper level—hold their hands while they grasp the realization that they have a new chance at life thanks to someone else and feel how honored they are to have this opportunity—due to my prior experiences.”
Leading up to her junior year of college, Alyson said she was set on becoming a Physician Assistant (PA) and working in an acute care setting. However, she got the opportunity to write an academic paper as a senior that would allow her to graduate from the Honors College at UMass Lowell. Because transplantation had long been one of her underlying interests, she was able to collaborate with Dr. Brenna Morse, her mentor, and Dr. Heidi Fantasia, the editor of Nursing for Women’s Health, a practice journal of the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, on an article educating nurses and healthcare professionals about the reproductive health of individuals after an organ transplant.
While working on this paper, Alyson found a new passion for research and, after many lengthy discussions with Dr. Morse, realized that what she really wanted was to pursue a career as a Nurse Scientist. Alyson again pivoted, changing her summer plans from working on applications to PA programs to enrolling in a PhD program.
“Truthfully, my journey as an advocate for organ donation changed my life,” Alyson said.
Fun facts about Alyson: She loves going to the gym, hanging out with her friends and family, and walking her dog, Tucker. Recently, she bought a Kindle and said she can’t stop reading.
Alyson attending the ANCC National Magnet Conference, the largest nursing conference for nurse professionals.
For students looking to pursue their careers in medicine, Alyson stressed, “Medicine is for all people!” because “everyone has an individualized experience with the medical and healthcare system, which brings unique stories and perspectives.”
She added, “I have experience in transplantation, thanks to SODA and NEDS, which allows me to understand transplant patients on a deeper level. If students who are interested in medicine have struggled with asthma, allergies, or another illness that impacted their lives, I encourage them to think about pursuing a path in medicine that can touch patients with those similar diagnoses.”
For those students particularly interested in pursuing careers related to transplantation, she recommends shadowing a variety of providers throughout the transplant world.
Alyson said she is grateful for her organ, eye, and tissue donation advocacy journey, and she looks forward to what the future holds.
“Working in organ transplantation is so unbelievably rewarding,” she said. “When patients do receive an organ and successfully transition from sick to well, it is truly so inspiring. They can return to a normal life, which wasn’t possible prior to transplant. I am so grateful to be a part of this healing process on a daily basis.”