3 Views of Advanced Degrees

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PhD Student

Beth Brown is one of the first three students in the pioneering PhD in applied physiology program of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), Atlanta. The new doctoral program relates to the O&P profession. What brought this bright young student to the program?

She answers: "I have been practicing as a physical therapist for the past ten years in Florida and absolutely love being a clinician. However, I have always wanted to be in academia, specifically teaching and conducting research in a university's physical therapy program, but I didn't want to pursue this until I had some good clinical experience to bring to the classroom and lab.

"I moved to Atlanta in January of last year to be with the man I married a few months later. While I was working at an outpatient physical therapy clinic, a patient who worked in the College of Sciences at Georgia Tech told me about the new AP PhD program during one of his therapy sessions. Both the timing of the opportunity and the scope of the program fit too perfectly with my professional goals to pass up. I started in August, and while it has been quite an adjustment to be a student again, I love the challenge and have no regrets."

Beth's research project connects with the prosthetic profession, since it focuses on the systemic function of amputees as it relates to exercise dynamics and metabolics. Interestingly, famed amputee triathlete Sarah Reinertsen was her inspiration. Says Beth, "I am an avid triathlete and first became interested in amputee athlete physiology after watching Sarah Reinertsen become the first amputee female to complete the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon a couple of years ago, a race I considered to be the second most challenging course I've ever done. I then got to watch her successfully finish the most challenging course I've ever done, the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon in Kona this year, and, like everyone else there, was just blown away by her accomplishment.

"But beyond that," Beth continues, "it left me curious how the physiological demands of her performance differ from that of non-amputees. Do we really know? After an extensive review of the literature, I was surprised to find out that no, we really don't. There is a wealth of information about non-amputee endurance athlete physiology that coaches and athletes use in training and racing to maximize results. However, is it accurate to assess fitness and prescribe exercise for amputees using the predictive formulas and testing protocols that have been established in non-amputee athlete physiology research? For instance, how does the loss of muscle mass from amputation affect the accuracy of using 'target heart rate zones' to describe exercise intensity levels for amputees?"

Brown is currently writing a grant proposal for funding to allow her to compare oxygen consumption, blood lactate accumulation, heart rate, energy metabolism, and other physiological responses of amputee and non-amputee runners during maximal graded exercise treadmill testing in the lab.

Brown sees value for clinicians trained in research, as well as persons aiming strictly for the research arena. She comments, "There is a huge need for clinicians trained in research in many health-related professions, including physical therapy and P&O. Clinicians bring perspective gained from experience with real patient problems and contribute a sense of applicability to research questions. I think what Georgia Tech has done by establishing the first entry-level masters degree program in P&O brings P&O education where it needs to be. Given the rapid advancements in materials science and prosthetic technology, the field will demand clinicians with expertise commensurate with an advanced degree. Moving the P&O education toward producing clinicians trained in utilizing and performing research will ultimately serve to increase the body of knowledge for the profession and better meet the patients' needs."

Georgia Tech MSPO Graduate

Andrew Sawers, a graduate of Georgia Tech's Master of Science in Prosthetics and Orthotics (MSPO) program and the author of this month's "Perspective" guest editorial on page 60, is now completing his residency at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York.

Andrew likewise wants to retain the connectivity between research and clinical practice. Looking five years into the future, Andrew says, "I see myself in an institutional setting continuing with clinical practice while I pursue a PhD in a prosthetic-related field--biomedical, biomechanics or rehabilitation sciences etc.--to provide myself with the appropriate tools to act as a PI [principal investigator] in prosthetic and orthotic research. Ultimately I would like to hold an academic position where I can conduct thorough and meaningful research, while also maintaining a clinical affiliation with a gradual transition to a focus on research."

Research Assistant Professor, Northwestern

Margrit Meier, CPO, PhD, is a research assistant professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Prosthetics Research Laboratory and Rehabilitation Engineering Research Program, Chicago, Illinois. She sees the O&P profession as being "in a transformation period where it is trying to establish a stronger, i.e. equal, position within the rehabilitation team. I support this transformation."

Two primary advanced, research-oriented educational pathways are envisioned that are or should be available to prosthetists and orthotists (Figure 1). The report points out,
Two primary advanced, research-oriented educational pathways are envisioned that are or should be available to prosthetists and orthotists (Figure 1). The report points out,

She adds, "But I am not quite sure if the only way to achieve this goal is towards a PhD program."

She continues, "Let me define first what I understand with a PhD education: A PhD is an academic degree with a strong research orientation, thus not necessarily clinical-oriented. In my opinion, such a degree may not automatically provide the tools that an O&P professional requires in order to set his or her services apart from non-O&P professionals. What is required in my opinion is a strong skill and knowledge-based formation that provides the O&P professional with the necessary tools that will allow him or her to participate successfully in the rehabilitation market. A successful competitor will have an equal position in the rehabilitation team."

Meier received her certification in Switzerland after completing a four-year program. "At that time, most higher education in our profession was directed towards Germany because no further education in O&P was available in Switzerland," she explains. "The MSc-Program offered by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, was an alternative that suited my needs best." After completing the program, Meier continued her academic education and completed it with a PhD degree in clinical sciences with an emphasis in biomechanics.

Meier pursued further education because "I wanted to understand the biomechanical aspects of our profession better and was thus on a search for answers to my questions. I like variety and thus continue to explore and expand into different domains."

When asked what she considers as the value of advanced degrees in the O&P profession, both clinically and in research, she responded, "In my opinion, this depends on the passion of a person towards a profession and its professional goals. A higher degree does not automatically mean that his or her contribution to the profession is of higher value and thus relevant to the advancement of the profession. I truly believe that valued contributions are achieved by persons that love their job, enjoy it, and are passionate about it, independent of the education degree."

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