Clinical Research Track Experiences: Katherine Pappa, OTD/S ‘16

Katie Pappa, OTD/S ‘16
Clinical Research Track: Cognitive and Occupational Performance Laboratory

Why did you choose WUOT for your occupational therapy education?
I chose Washington University in St. Louis (WUOT) for my occupational therapy education because of its fantastic reputation, array of opportunities to become a leader in the field, and focus on research. I knew that I wanted to be involved in impacting the field and finding new avenues for occupational therapy practice and WUOT seemed to be the right fit. My hunch was correct, as my experience here has been full of many learning, leadership and research experiences within the profession that have positively impacted my future goals. Additionally, I feel fortunate to be learning from a top-notch faculty and developing a truly occupation-based theoretical framework to carry with me throughout my clinical practice.

Why did you choose the clinical research track option for your degree?

When I was applying to WUOT, I knew I wanted to be involved in research. The idea of collaborating with others to create a project that contributes to a scientific body of knowledge seeking to improve other people’s quality of life has always appealed to me. The clinical research track was therefore a clear choice based on my goals and interests.

Briefly describe the clinical research lab you chose.

In Dr. Erin Foster’s Cognitive and Occupational Performance Laboratory, we focus on cognitive components of Parkinson’s disease and its impact on everyday life. However, projects have expanded to include Huntington’s disease and self-management in Parkinson’s disease, and Dr. Foster works to match lab projects with student interests. Membership in this lab is truly a learning experience, and I have gained a comprehensive understanding of occupational performance issues faced by individuals with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers through weekly journal clubs, observation with a neurologist at the Washington University Movement Disorders Center, and the American Parkinson’s Disease Association (APDA) St. Louis Chapter events. The lab is run in a supportive and organized fashion to provide opportunities for learning and exploration within Parkinson’s disease and cognition. 

What project/s are you involved with in your lab?

My doctoral project is a part of a larger project examining the use of the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program (CDSMP), a six-week workshop designed by leaders at Stanford University, to improve quality of life for individuals with Parkinson’s disease. My project specifically examines the effect of CDSMP participation on social support for individuals with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers to determine if the CDSMP can promote social support in Parkinson’s disease. I gained certification to facilitate two CDSMP workshops with a leader who had Parkinson’s disease. My project is a nice blend of research and clinical experience, as I worked directly with participants while also managed qualitative and quantitative data and interpreted results. I also had the opportunity to assist other lab members with their projects related to self-management, and to train other lab members on general Standard Operating Procedures for the larger study.

How does the clinical research experience contribute (beyond the rest of the set curriculum) to your overall skill and preparation as a generalist practitioner?

My experience has taught me to inform my practice through evidence. By facilitating CDSMP classes and analyzing their effects, I am putting this into action. I have also been able to critique evidence and understand its challenges to implementation when working with individuals in a community setting. I have noticed the furthered development of clinical skills from my time in the lab as well. As a CDSMP facilitator, I have grown in my confidence to represent occupational therapy, teach skills, and provide recommendations to elderly individuals. As a lab member, I have learned to partner with organizations such as the APDA, other professionals, and my peers to work towards a common goal of improving quality of life. These skills have transferred when working with any population set clinically thus far, and I am grateful for their presence in my OT “toolbox.”

What kind of guidance is provided by your faculty mentor?

Dr. Foster uses her clinical and academic knowledge to guide members of her lab as an occupational therapist and important contributor to the Parkinson’s disease literature. As an alumna of the Program, Dr. Foster understands the student experience and provides mentorship that fits the needs of each individual student. Her first step as a mentor involves taking the time to understand each students’ interests and goals and collaborates with students to help meet them. She is also a motivating mentor who provides expectations, but allows lab members independence and flexibility for how to meet these expectations. Consistent meetings and feedback allow lab projects run smoothly and efficiently. Dr. Foster encourages student growth and learning by providing resources and opportunities, and is always willing to provide questions, feedback, and advice along the way.

How would you describe this experience to prospective students who may be interested in clinical research?

Overall, I have expanded my knowledge and skills beyond my initial expectations since joining the Cognitive and Occupational Performance Laboratory. I initially was interested in becoming involved in cognitive and neuroscience-focused projects, but through greater exploration, really found my home in self-management. My clinical research experience has been one of the most beneficial experiences of my time at WUOT, to furthering my definition of goals for future OT practice. By remaining open to new ideas and paths, I have become inspired and motivated to delve into a specific area of OT practice and contribute to our current understanding.

How will this clinical research experience contribute to your career?

I hope to be involved in clinical research in the future, working to develop programs and interventions much like my work so far in this lab. However, understanding how to incorporate evidence into practice is also a valuable clinical skill that I have taken away that is increasingly important as occupational therapy seeks to increase evidence-based practice. I am also confident the time management, organization, and clinical skills I have learned as a member of Cognitive and Occupational Performance Laboratory will assist in my future clinical career as well.


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