“I developed a sense of honor that someone would allow me to be part of their health journey and was humbled by their appreciation of my role in their journey.”
Dr. Kirsten Wright’s first encounter with naturopathic medicine was when several of her family members failed to find relief from conventional care and turned to alternative treatment for their autoimmune conditions. “I watched them seek care from alternative medicine providers and experience significant improvement with natural therapies and dietary modifications. This instilled in me the desire to help people and pursue a degree in medicine,” she says.
As early as undergraduate school, Dr. Wright knew she wanted to pursue biomedical research on botanical medicines. This led her to look into clinical training. “I realized that I was not going to be able to do rigorous botanical medicine research with clinical application if I did not possess clinical training in botanical medicine prescribing,” she says. It was then that she decided to enroll in a naturopathic medical degree program. “I chose this program, over other herbal medicine programs, because I would not only receive extensive training in botanical medicine prescribing, but also training in other therapeutic modalities with clinical rotations, allowing for a comprehensive clinical training.”
Starting her career path at NUNM
When looking at naturopathic medical schools, Dr. Wright knew she wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest, where she had earned her undergraduate degree. “As an outdoor enthusiast, I wanted to live somewhere close to mountains and the ocean, so I could experience nature in what available time I had outside of class.” One of the two schools she applied to was NUNM. “They were in the process of developing and launching a Master of Science in Integrative Medicine program designed to teach me how to perform integrative medicine research,” Dr. Wright recalls.
“After a few different turns in my career trajectory, I first knew naturopathic medicine was the correct path for me during my first few courses at NUNM,” she says. “As I continued in my education and started to see patients in the clinic and through preceptorships, I saw firsthand just how powerful naturopathic medicine could be. I received widespread gratitude and positive feedback from patients as a student and a resident physician, and the feeling of accomplishment in helping someone find relief and take ownership of their health reinforced that this was the correct path for me.”
Once she began NUNM, she had a concrete vision of her goals for the future. “My plan was to learn as much about botanical medicines and botanical medicine research as I could through courses, electives, conferences, and specialized trainings. I knew that I needed to make my interests clear early in my education, so that I could find the appropriate mentors to guide and teach me.”
“I entered NUNM as part of a winter admission cohort, which had significantly fewer students than the fall cohort. Starting with such a small cohort of students on an accelerated dual-degree academic track fostered close friendships, collaborative relationships, and exceptional organization skills,” Dr. Wright says. “I engaged in mentored clinical shifts in women’s health and cardiopulmonary medicine, cultivating in me high-quality diagnostic and charting skills, further refined as a resident physician. This experience provided me with essential skills for my current fellowship, but also for working in a busy integrative medicine practice.”
A springboard into a robust research career
After graduation, Dr. Wright wasted no time pursuing postdoctoral opportunities. “I completed a three-month postdoctoral fellowship at NUNM’s Helfgott Research Institute helping fellow researchers complete manuscripts for submission to peer-reviewed journals. Shortly after, I began a two-year CNME approved dual site integrative medicine residency at Today Integrative Health and Wellness and RestorePDX Interventional Sports and Spine in the Portland metropolitan area,” she says. “Throughout my residency, I was able to see patients autonomously and with other providers to refine my skills as a clinician. I was able to continue my participation in research by serving as a clinical investigator on a study of fish oil supplementation for pain.”
“After completing my residency, I was approached by one of my master’s thesis mentors about a possible postdoctoral training fellowship in botanical medicines and cognitive decline, specifically Alzheimer’s disease, at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU),” Dr. Wright says. “This program is designed to provide training and mentorship in botanical medicine research, which I had been seeking since my undergraduate career, so I applied for and was accepted into OHSU’s NIH funded T32 training program through the Oregon Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurological Disorders.”
Juggling research, studies, and clinical trials
Dr. Wright is now a postdoctoral scholar at OHSU where she is also pursuing a Master of Science in clinical research. “As a postdoctoral scholar, student, and clinician engaged in clinical trials at a large academic institution, my life is busy,” she says. “I am currently working on getting institutional approval for a multi-part clinical trial, so I am spending my time developing a formulation for my botanical intervention, composing protocols, preparing applications for the Food and Drug Administration, and attending trainings and research team meetings.”
After her fellowship, Dr. Wright plans to continue her research in botanical medicine and cognition, as well as return to part-time clinical practice. She is also interested in sports medicine, including regenerative medicine techniques and helping athletes optimize their performance naturally, which she hopes to incorporate in her future plans.
Despite her full schedule, Dr. Wright finds time for her hobbies. “I do also have time to spend in the outdoors climbing mountains, cross country skiing with my Siberian huskies, and enjoying the wine country that Oregon has to offer,” she says.
Finding fulfillment from naturopathic medicine
Throughout her various positions and fellowships, Dr. Wright has continually found her work to be fulfilling and meaningful. “What I enjoy most about being a naturopathic doctor is educating people about their health and empowering them to make positive changes,” she says. “In clinical practice, I would repeatedly hear patients say, ‘thank you for explaining this to me. Now I understand why I feel this way.’ I would work with the patient to investigate and identify the root cause of their condition, and through this process see them develop an understanding of their own body, thereby taking ownership of their health. I found this extremely rewarding.”
“I also like the holistic way naturopathic physicians approach disease, especially when a condition presents in an ambiguous fashion. I will never grow tired of the challenge of identifying the area of imbalance and working with the patient to select a treatment modality that suits their individual needs,” she adds.
She also appreciates the diversity of her career, which has spanned clinical practice and research. “The flexibility of this profession is one of the things that brought me to naturopathic medicine in the first place,” she says. “We are much needed in a lot of different arenas, including integrative medical practices, research institutions, underserved communities, and industry. Finding which arena best suits you is one of the exciting parts about being a naturopathic physician.”
“As a clinician researcher, I am most passionate about developing and performing rigorous research that advance our understanding of naturopathic medicine and how it can be applied to current clinical paradigms,” she adds. “As naturopathic physicians, we are often confronted with skepticism. It is my hope that many other naturopathic doctors participate in collaborative research to help build the available scientific evidence alleviating the skepticism and increasing the accessibility of naturopathic medicine.”
Advice for future NDs
Dr. Wright’s experience as a naturopathic student and doctor has taught her valuable lessons about the field. “When considering naturopathic medicine as a career path, think about what you would like to do with your degree after graduation—private practice, group practice, industry, research,” she says. “Deciding what you would like to do early will allow you to find the appropriate mentorship and help develop the skills necessary for your area of interest.”
She adds, “listen to yourself. Pursuing a degree in naturopathic medicine is challenging, but if are passionate about it, the challenge becomes an exciting journey, which for me lead to a very rewarding career.”
Learn more about Dr. Kirsten Wright: