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Sharon Tahl Cowden '71

Sharon Tahl Cowden '71

Originally attending IUP as a Chemistry major, Sharon Cowden switched to Biology, then Medical Technology, “simply because it was a field that involved science, which I always loved,” she said, “and also at the time you were guaranteed a job when you graduated.”

After graduating from IUP in 1971, Dr. Cowden worked as a medical technologist, primarily in microbiology, for 12 years. In 1986, she completed a degree in Chemistry from Chatham College in Pittsburgh before applying to medical school at the age of 36.

“The Chemistry degree was my Plan B in case I did not get into medical school. In 1986, I was one of the oldest students the University of Pittsburgh had ever accepted. I was married with two children, ages 7 and 10,” she said. “My kids and I grew up going to school together.”

Now a staff pediatrician at Children’s Community Pediatrics in Pittsburgh, Dr. Cowden is also a cofounder, with Janette Poppenberg, of Strength & Courage, a nonprofit program that provides exercise resources to breast cancer survivors looking to regain physical and emotional strength after treatment.

Dr. Cowden, a breast cancer survivor and avid golfer, met Ms. Poppenberg as a result of her efforts to improve her own upper body strength and flexibility, which had been diminished by her treatment. She and Ms. Poppenberg, an American College of Sports Medicine/American Cancer Society certified cancer exercise trainer, recognized the need to educate survivors and health care providers about the importance of exercise in achieving a full recovery after breast cancer surgery.

“Our goal is to enable each woman to return to the life she knew before breast cancer,” Dr. Cowden said.

As a result of their collaboration, Strength & Courage: Exercises for Breast Cancer Survivors, was developed. The DVD allows women to exercise in the privacy of their own homes. The exercises are demonstrated by breast cancer survivors and led by either Ms. Poppenberg or a licensed physical therapist. To date, more than 16,000 Strength & Courage DVDs have been distributed in all 50 states and 12 other countries.

Dr. Cowden’s desire to help others began when she was a student at IUP.

“I was very caught up in the times of the ’60s,” she said, “the racial problems of the country, the Vietnam War, etc.”

Once she was in medicine, she had an avenue to work with people in other countries and make a difference. Dr. Cowden has volunteered for short-term medical missions in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

“I chose Central and South America because it was closer to the United States,” she said. “Another reason was because my daughter, Alissa, who is now also a physician, speaks Spanish fluently, and she traveled with me on several trips.

“We loved sharing this experience together, working in the countryside of Third World countries and bringing sorely needed medical care to the people.”

Dr. Cowden is the daughter of Chester and Mildred Tahl, both deceased, and is married to Jere Cowden, a 1969 IUP Economics graduate who is founder and chairman of Cowden Associates, Inc., a consulting and actuarial firm. In addition to Alissa, Dr. Cowden is the mother of Michael, a journalist, and aunt to Bethany Knicely, a teacher, who grew up with the Cowden family after both of her parents’ untimely deaths, her mother’s of breast cancer.

In 2012, Dr. Cowden received the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Jefferson Award for public service. She is proud of her work in the medical field, particularly her involvement with Strength & Courage.

“It has been an honor to help survivors from all over the world,” she said.

Profile published on 6/11/13

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