Phoenix High School senior Kya McAlister created a powerpoint presentation about her work with OHSU's Dr. David Sahn to examine the right ventricle of the human heart in an effort to advance the treatment of congenital heart disease, heart failure and pulmonary hypertension. - Bob Pennell

The sky's the limit

At just 17, Kya McAlister is not only a valedictorian with perfect grades, but is student body president at Phoenix High School, presented her cardiology project to the American Heart Association and is headed to the U.S. Naval Academy, with an eye on a career in intelligence, flight medicine or possibly as an astronaut.

McAlister did an internship for the past three summers at Oregon Health Sciences University, assisting in heart surgeries under her mentor, Dr. David Sahn, "learning how the heart works" and emerging with her senior project, an abstract called "Volumetric Studies of the Right Ventricle, Using Anatomically Accurate Expandable Latex Models."

Her motivation sprang from assisting her grandfather who was afflicted with cancer and, she said, "realizing how helpless I was. I couldn't fix it. It frustrated me. I saw fear in him that I'd never seen and I wanted to remove that fear."

In her project, she worked with sheep hearts and created latex models of the human ventricle, as well as a computer image of a patient's ventricle, she notes, that could be rotated and explored from any angle.

McAlister's project developed a method for using software and echocardiography (heart sonogram) to assess the volume of the right ventricle of people with congenital heart disease "so doctors won't have to cut the patient open to find that out." She was invited to present the medical abstract on the process, co-authored by Sahn and two others, at a scientific session of the American Heart Association. She was the only high school student present, she said.

It was published in the AHA Journal earlier this year. Find it online at

In her valedictory address Saturday evening in Lithia Park, she will acknowledge her parents, Mark and Debi McAlister, a retired high school principal and counselor, respectively, for "always being right there for us," and her classmates, who "can go as far as you want with what you want to achieve."

In addition to her academic feats, McAlister played varsity soccer and basketball, played softball, mastered scuba diving and piloting the family's plane. She confesses to being excited to graduate and get out in the wide world of opportunity, which could include becoming a Navy pilot or going to medical school either after her five-year obligation as a Navy officer or during her Navy tour.

Tentatively, she will major in chemistry and minor in Arabic, but she says, "I don't know for sure. There are so many avenues. It looks like I want to go into intelligence or medicine. I could stick in the Navy and they would pay for med school."

Asked if she's up for four years in the traditionally male world of the Naval Academy — it's now about one-fifth women entering — McAlister found that at a one-week, hands-on preview last summer at Annapolis, she was singled out for leadership skills and getting along with classmates.

"I'm witty and can fire right back at them (men)," she says, adding that she held up well in a ropes course, marching and extensive "crab walking," which is walking on hands and feet with belly facing the sky, going uphill.

A Marine sergeant trainer at Annapolis wrote a letter of praise about her to U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who recommended her for Annapolis. The recommendation of a member of Congress is required for entry.

Asked about possible duty in space, she burst into a big smile, exclaiming, "Oh yes! I'd love to. They had us help track satellites and the academy is the perfect place to get in on being an astronaut. They make more astronauts than anyplace else."

Her advanced placement language and composition teacher, Stacy Lange, observed: "She came here as a sophomore and got involved with her class and community right away. She's a wonderful person, really driven, with a lot of intelligence, passion and heart. To do this, it takes really supportive parents, involved in the planning role, and a deep respect for the educational process."

PHS students are required to put in at least 30 hours on their senior project, have a mentor and submit at least an eight-page paper. McAlister, who also was accepted into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and turned down a full-ride scholarship at Duke University, delivered her project to a panel of community evaluators on Wednesday — and passed.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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