by Stephanie Stemmler • October 14, 2019
Lisa Connor, PhD, administers the Kettle Test, which assesses cognitive functional performance in stroke patients.
Lisa Connor, PhD, MSOT, OTR/L, wants to know what makes people tick. She says with a laugh, “I’m very curious about how things work and why people do what they do, so that has fueled me over my entire career!”
An acclaimed researcher in stroke recovery and community reintegration, Connor is the new Elias Michael Executive Director of the Program in Occupational Therapy at Washington University School of Medicine. She takes over the helm of the #1 occupational therapy program in the nation from M. Carolyn Baum, PhD, OTR, FAOTA, who stepped down after leading the program for 31 years.
“Dr. Baum nurtured the educational, clinical and research programs here with the highest possible standards of excellence, and with indelible impact,” Connor says. “I look forward to building further on the Program’s excellence at the dawn of its second century.”
It’s a double homecoming for Connor — ask her that standard St. Louis–specific question, and she will tell you her parents and siblings still reside here and she went to Rosati-Kain High School right around the corner in the Central West End. She also is returning to Washington University, where she earned both her master’s and doctoral degrees (’90 and ’92, respectively) in experimental psychology before enhancing her career toolbox by pursuing a master’s degree in occupational therapy from the Program in Occupational Therapy (2013).
Pursuing occupational therapy was a natural progression of her desire to better understand contributing factors to people’s behaviors and their impact on daily living. Connor first went to Johns Hopkins University to study psychology for her undergraduate degree. She focused on scientific research related to animal models of depression, but then had the opportunity to work in a lab investigating the impact of brain injuries on memory and language in humans. She was hooked on investigating the impact of brain injuries on cognitive function. She subsequently returned to St. Louis to learn more about what turned into a lifelong interest in cognitive performance, rehabilitation and community participation.
After graduating from Washington University with her doctoral degree, Connor continued her research as an NIH-funded postdoctoral fellow, first at the Program on Cognitive Aging at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and then in the Adult Communicative Disorders Program at Boston University School of Medicine. She joined the faculty of Boston University in 1996 and served as the assistant director of the Language in the Aging Brain Laboratory. In 1999, she also was named associate director of the Harold Goodglass Aphasia Research Center.
Along the way, neuroimaging became a more mainstream tool for research and clinical practice, and Connor pondered whether imaging could help her better understand the brain mechanisms of language disorders in stroke patients. Her interest drew her back to St. Louis to work in the Neuroimaging Lab of neurologist Maurizio Corbetta, MD, a stroke rehabilitation expert who was using neuroimaging to study the mechanisms of language recovery in people with stroke and aphasia.
“It was an ‘a-ha’ moment because Maurizio connected me with several colleagues in neurorehabilitation, including Carolyn Baum and others,” Connor recalls. “That turned out to be the key, because they were studying the piece I didn’t know how to study — how do we measure what people are doing in everyday life? I realized then that they knew how to do that in occupational therapy.”
She stayed in Corbetta’s lab for five years, then pursued her degree in occupational therapy. From 2006 to 2014, she served on the faculty of the Program in Occupational Therapy. Drawn to a leadership position in Boston, Connor became the first chair of the new Department of Occupational Therapy at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in 2014. In 2018, she was named the institute’s interim associate dean of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and associate director of its research programs.
“I took a leadership course at Washington University, and my participation in that convinced me that I should go out into the world and apply my leadership skills,” she says. “The MGH Institute never had an occupational therapy program, and it was invigorating to build something from scratch and assemble a team of wonderful, experienced faculty. In just five years, we made a mark on the profession and created an excellent program.”
Over 25 years, Connor’s push to quantitatively model the impact of cognitive, communication and psychosocial factors on community living after stroke has informed intervention approaches for stroke survivors. That foundation of evidence-based research and practice, which has been a long-standing hallmark of the Washington University Program in Occupational Therapy, is one of the reasons she decided to return to St. Louis for a third time.
“Evidence-based practice is part of my personality,” Connor stresses. “I’ve always been a person who wants to see what the evidence is to guide moving forward. I have to understand the options, the interventions and, ultimately, what works. We can’t help our clients optimally if we don’t know what works.”
“I am excited to welcome such a proven leader to the school’s outstanding Program in Occupational Therapy,” noted David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor of medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “Dr. Connor’s extensive experience in research administration, interdisciplinary team development, research and clinical networking, and mentorship of students and junior faculty make her a wonderful match for leadership of our program.”
Connor is actively establishing her own research lab on campus and will continue her study of evidence-driven interventions that enable stroke survivors to participate more fully in their communities. Her vision as the new leader of the Program in Occupational Therapy is to continue to build the scientific base, further developing the research division to be even more impactful, while also focusing on enhancing the strength of the clinical and educational components. She is acutely aware of the changing health-care environment and stresses that occupational therapists, like other professionals, need to be good stewards of health-care dollars. “Our responsibility is to understand what gives the most bang for the buck and how to best enable people to help themselves. That’s why we are focused on evidence and the mechanisms of recovery across the translational continuum, so that we identify and implement effective interventions that enable people with chronic and disabling conditions to function maximally in their communities.”
Simply put, she adds, “[Occupational therapy] is deeply embedded in our DNA here at Washington University – and we’re helping people where they live do what they need to do.”
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