Unsinkable Karsten Cowan

Psychology research student Karsten Cowan trains on setting up the electroencephalographic (EEG) cap for the multi-cultural research project at the UW-Green Bay Child’s Lab. UW-Green Bay, Sue Pischke University Photographer

It started as a typical December day for Karsten Cowan, although in 2020, the concept of “typical” had evolved due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Undeterred by the mid-December cold of Green Bay, she pursued her familiar routine of practicing diving at the Kress Center pool. And as a first-year Phoenix at UW-Green Bay, she was already making waves, both in the pool and within the psychology department.

Diving had become Cowan’s constant, a passion she discovered back in eighth grade. “I started diving in eighth grade when we moved to Eau Claire,” Cowan explains. One of her teachers was also the diving coach at her high school. “He knew I was into gymnastics and told me gymnasts make great divers. So why not give diving a try? And that just took off.”

Psychology student Karsten Cowan

What had also propelled Cowan to this December day on the UW-Green Bay campus was not just a love of diving but also a passion for her major in psychology—an academic choice that had also been driven by personal victories over challenges large and small.

Her parents had divorced when she was young, and life hadn’t been easy. “My mom was a single mom for a while, and that taught me a lot about work ethic and things.” She worked double shifts as a waitress to make enough money to pay for their house and make sure they had Christmas and birthday presents. It was that determination that shaped Cowan’s worldview. Those events also made Cowan wise beyond her years and drew her to explore her own emotions. “I feel like my mom’s experience taught me a lot about relationships.”

Her journey into the world of psychology began in high school, sparked by an AP Psychology class that ignited her curiosity about human behavior and emotions. This fascination led her to UW-Green Bay, where she eagerly embraced psychology as her major, determined to explore the complexities of the human mind.

But at this moment, she was a student-athlete exploring the complexities of a back one-and-a-half off a three-meter springboard. Cowan describes the sequence, “My back is to the pool. I’m standing backward on the end, facing the rest of the board.” What the judges are looking for is a balanced diver on her toes, heels off the board, and a straight body with shoulders in line with the hips culminating in a successful flight and entry, with as little splash as possible.

The dive itself takes about three seconds. The top of the dive off a three-meter board is about 11 feet above the water. Even before that, she knew she was in trouble. “My hands slipped off of my shins, and I couldn’t rotate anymore. So you try to save it, but there’s not a ton you can do.”

The result was the opposite of an iconic belly flop. “I landed on my back.”

At the time, Cowan assumed her biggest injury was to her pride. “I didn’t black out or anything. I saw spots, then I was like…you’re seeing stars more frequently than you should. So, I took the rest of the practice off and started icing my neck.”

Back in her dorm room, the symptoms got worse. “I tried to stand up and I almost fell over. I stood up out of my bed and got so dizzy that I fell over. So, I was like, okay, also not good. I think I wound up throwing up that day.”

Eventually, Cowan consulted athletic trainers who advised her to take it easy due to a suspected concussion. Diagnosing the condition was complicated by pandemic protocols. “The trainer told me to take it easy and that we would do the concussion test when we were able to,” she recalled, highlighting the difficulties posed by COVID restrictions.

Her symptoms worsened, leading to a confirmed diagnosis of a severe concussion from a sports therapy doctor. With the university shutting down, Cowan returned home to Eau Claire, a silver lining as she needed extensive therapy and couldn’t drive. “Thankfully, my mom would take me to my appointments. She would help me with everything. I couldn’t take the elevator in the hospital building without getting nauseous. So, she would be there to hold my arm when I thought I would pass out.”

Cowan underwent diverse therapies to regain basic functionalities like reading and screen time without feeling ill. “I wound up moving home because it got to the point where I couldn’t really take care of myself anymore. I couldn’t drive anywhere. I could barely shower without falling over,” she said, emphasizing her determination to continue college despite the hurdles. “It was spring 2021, still my freshman year, I had full-time classes, and I was doing speech therapy, occupational therapy, vestibular therapy, and seeing a neurologist. I had to reteach my body how to move in space without getting dizzy.”

By June, seven months later, she was cleared to return to campus, albeit with a difficult decision. “It was probably one of the biggest decisions that I’ve made was to not continue diving.”

Psychology Associate Professor Jason Cowell, center, observes psychology research students training on the electroencephalographic (EEG) cap for the multi-cultural research project at the UW-Green Bay Child’s Lab. UW-Green Bay, Sue Pischke University Photographer

But in true Phoenix fashion, her academic career was on the rise. She took a class that semester called Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN) with Psychology Professor and department vice-chair, Jason Cowell, Ph.D. “I explained to him how I was really interested in research and I loved learning about the brain.” Which led to Cowell offering her a research position in his lab for her sophomore year—a distinction usually reserved for juniors and above.

Cowell was impressed both by Cowan’s maturity and intellect. “She asks legitimately interesting and new questions. That is a rare thing for an undergrad to have already started to develop, especially this early in her career.” Plus, despite having to reteach herself how to learn, Cowan was a quick study. “She also jumped into research right away her sophomore year, and that means she’s years ahead in experience. Actually administering and processing EEGs (a neurophysiological reading of brain activity through an electroencephalographic “hat”), which she’s been leading in my lab for a couple of years now, are usually skills acquired in your second or third year of grad school or sometimes during your postdoc.”

While diving isn’t in her future, graduate school and beyond are. And Cowell can see a bright trajectory. “Karsten has high, high potential. She was a first-gen student and didn’t know how to explore it. She came here, had some life events like the concussion happen. And it is driving her to be a top-notch researcher that will go on to shape the field.”

And perhaps make an even bigger splash away from the pool. A couple of years ago Cowan was retraining herself to read; now she’s contemplating graduate school and beyond. But what she’s always known, she had learned at an early age. “I’ve always believed that even when life is tough, you’re going to get out of it. You can shine through it. And there’s nothing that I feel like I couldn’t handle at this point.”

Watch this video featuring Karsten Cowan and her triumph over adversity.

What gives you a spark?

“Sharing the knowledge that I’ve learned. I love the idea of learning something and then passing that on to somebody else. And I feel like it really has to do with the idea of never stopping learning. I love the idea of never being satisfied with what I’m learning because I always want to go one step further. I always want to learn what’s next. I could learn everything there is to know about one topic, and I want to share it. I want to learn more. I want to add it to something else.”

What’s the last lesson life taught you?

“Barbie! I recently saw Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie. And I feel like it taught me just to always stand up for yourself and be confident and the idea of never being satisfied with what you’re getting, always make sure that you are seen in a room, and the idea of never being satisfied without growth, always making sure that you are seen in a room, and getting the recognition you deserve.

How has education ignited your personal growth?

“I feel like with psychology specifically, they really do teach you just how to know and understand people. Sometimes you have no idea what someone’s going through. Just the idea of understanding people as a whole sets you up for success in almost any field.”

At UW-Green Bay, every person has the power to Rise. No matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you want to be. We invite you to read more Rise Stories about people from all walks of life who are blazing a brighter future for our region.

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