Graduate student finds her calling in women’s health at Kennesaw State

KENNESAW, Ga. | Feb 22, 2024

Lacey Harper
One message reset the life trajectory for Kennesaw State University graduate student Lacey Harper.

Two years after earning a bachelor’s degree in exercise science summa cum laude from KSU, Harper worked as manager at a sporting goods store when she received a message via LinkedIn from one of her former professors, Garrett Hester.

“It almost seems like a movie,” Harper said. “I was just pursuing the business side of life and I got a message from, of all places, KSU. He asked me if I would be interested in an open graduate research assistant position. That one message really turned everything around.”

Currently pursuing a master’s in exercise science, Harper has thrived in the Hester research group. Along with the important mission of improving the health of older women, she discovered her inner nerd, immersing herself in the data analysis of her various projects as well as the hands-on aspects of studying the effects of exercise. She presented one of her projects at the Wellstar College Research and Engagement Day in spring 2023 and won honors among student presenters. 

While her award-winning project related to fall risk among middle-aged women due to muscle fatigue, her master’s thesis has focused on strength training with elastic bands to improve the health of older women. Strength training is effective for increasing muscle strength, but few perform such exercises, particularly older women. It’s a matter of accessibility and comfort with elastic bands, and more evidence is needed on their efficacy for improving muscle health. Harper seeks to quantify those physical function improvements and discover more about the physiological mechanisms behind them.

“We've created a home-based, super-practical elastic band training program that we will have women ages 65-79 perform at home, so it will be very easily accessible for them,” she said. “We're going to see how a shorter program affects their muscle health, their muscle quality and their physical function. We're doing all sorts of tests related to strength, all-cause mortality, how it affects their daily function and their quality of life.”

Hester researches aging and neuromuscular function with a recent emphasis on women’s health. He said Harper expressed interest in graduate school during her senior year in 2020, but her name didn’t come up until he had an opening for a graduate research assistant. His hunch paid off, and Harper has done exceptional work in the lab.

“She's been an impressive graduate student, and her accolades reflect that,” Hester said. “She’s truly committed to older women’s health and has really dived into the research and analytics. She’s also really embraced mentoring undergraduates, which is important for any graduate student, especially at an undergraduate-focused university like KSU.”

Aside from her master’s thesis, Harper has been consistently active in research and professional development pursuits. She has published two research articles, including one in the Journal of Physiology, a high-impact journal in the field. Harper also obtained her exercise physiologist certification this past summer. Recently, she was selected to present her findings on aging and muscle function in an “Emerging Findings on Aging” session at the Annual College of Sports Medicine meeting.  

After graduating in May, Harper plans to pursue a doctorate in the exercise science field, studying older women’s health in even greater detail. She said she will carry the lessons she learned in the labs and classrooms at Prillaman Hall with her wherever her studies take her.

“Thanks to Dr. Hester, the faculty at Kennesaw State and support from Wellstar College, I’ve been granted the opportunity to return to school in this way,” she said. “I know it’s cliche, but to say it has changed my life is the truest thing I can say about it. This time two years ago, I would never have thought I’d have the opportunity to dedicate myself to the important research we’re doing right now, and that I’m so grateful to contribute to the field of muscle heath and aging.”

– By Dave Shelles

Photos by Matt Yung

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit