Schwegel selected for TiDe student trainee program

St. Louis native Sarah Schwegel, OTD ’26, entered the Program in Occupational Therapy intending to pursue a career in occupational therapy (OT) education. Her first career, in public policy and advocacy, began at age 6 when she became the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

“I did public speaking for them about how their fundraising directly funded research and treatment for neuromuscular diseases,” Schwegel recalls. “When I was around 12, my parents gave me a sticker for my chair that said, ‘Think globally. Act locally.’ I’ve been committed to making change within the St. Louis community and Missouri for a long time.”

Schwegel earned her bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation services from Maryville University in 2015 and her master’s degree in public administration from Saint Louis University in 2018. She worked in Diversity and Inclusion at Nestlé Purina PetCare from 2015-17 and as a graduate assistant in the Political Science Department at Saint Louis University from 2017-18. She then became the youth transition coordinator at Starkloff Disability Institute, where she was integral to the development of the DREAM BIG career exploration program from 2018-19.

Schwegel worked as the public policy and advocacy specialist at Paraquad, St. Louis’ Center for Independent Living, from 2019-23. During that time, she spearheaded several grassroots community organizing efforts surrounding legislative issues of concern to Missourians with disabilities, including the Community Voices for Medicaid grant, which empowered self-advocates to share their experiences with the Missouri Medicaid program. Schwegel worked with other advocates across the state to pass the Ticket to Work Health Assurance Program, which allows individuals with disabilities aged 16-64 years old who are employed to get or keep Missouri HealthNet (Medicaid) coverage in 2023.

Her decision to enter OT school now was a matter of timing. “I always wanted to be an occupational therapist. As a child, OT was my favorite part of the week. Everything was occupation-based, and I learned the things I wanted to do like cooking and art,” Schwegel shares. “The timing wasn’t right after undergrad. I decided to apply after talking to a friend in her third OTD year. WashU has always been a dream of mine.”

Schwegel is also an athlete and plays competitive power soccer on the Disabled Athlete Sports Association (DASA) Firecrackers team. She volunteers for the United States Power Soccer Association (USPSA) and is currently working with colleagues and the U.S. Soccer Adapt and Thrive Leadership program to develop an Intercollegiate Division of the USPSA.

During her first-year research classes with Drs. Lenin Grajo and Emily Somerville, Schwegel started to think about social participation research for populations participating in power soccer, primarily those with significant chronic disease and illness. “There’s an intersection of how OT education can impact outcomes for powerchair users and people like me who have been receiving OT services their entire lives,” she explains. “How can having a more diverse profession also impact our social participation and quality of life outcomes?

So, in February, when faculty member Kerri Morgan, PhD, OTR/L, ATP, presented Schwegel with an opportunity to apply to the Training in Diversity for Rehabilitation Research Education (TiDe) student trainee program, Schwegel was definitely interested. TiDe’s goal is to transform research culture and develop clinician scientists from populations underrepresented in biomedical science. Faculty trainees provide mentoring and “hands-on” experiences in rehabilitation research for diverse student trainees from OT and physical therapy (PT) graduate training programs who identify with one or more groups currently underrepresented in biomedical science as defined by the National Institutes of Health. Morgan serves on TiDe’s Executive Committee.

“My interest in rehabilitation research is driven by a desire to contribute to the advancement of evidence-based practices that improve the lives of individuals with disabilities. Having experienced firsthand the transformative impact of rehabilitation services, I am passionate about exploring innovative approaches to enhance outcomes and promote holistic well-being,” Schwegel wrote in her application. “Specifically, I am interested in researching topics related to occupational therapy interventions for individuals with physical disabilities, with a focus on optimizing participation and quality of life. By participating in the TiDe program, I hope to gain a better understanding of what a research career might look like. I am at a transition point in my life and am learning about career opportunities.”

Schwegel received the news on April 17 that she’d been accepted into TiDe’s Cohort II.

“The student trainee program only admits five students each year, and the selection process is competitive,” Morgan explains. “For Sarah to be selected speaks to the strength of her application, her lived experiences, and what she can bring to this year’s cohort. It’s a major accomplishment.”

Schwegel will be paired with a faculty trainee based on shared research interests. She will interact with the other faculty-student pairs through the research activities, quarterly webinars and discussions for the next two years. The kickoff event for the new cohort is in July—the 2024 Annual TiDe Workshop held in Arlington, Va., at the American Physical Therapy Association headquarters. There, Schwegel will meet TiDe leadership and staff, as well as the faculty and student trainees from Cohorts I and II. Among them are leading rehabilitation researchers from the top OT and PT programs as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

“I am looking forward to meeting everyone in the program and getting started on projects!” Schwegel says.

Schwegel is already asking specific research questions about power soccer: “There is plenty of research on sports for non-disabled athletes. So why don't we have it for our significantly disabled athletes, too? If you search the literature, there are only 12 scholarly articles about power soccer being used as an intervention. Since we’re building a collegiate division for power soccer right now, we can begin asking questions about how power soccer has impacted wheelchair users who decide to go to college. ‘How has being an athlete at the club level helped you transition to college?’ And after we build the division, by asking questions like, ‘How has having a student-athlete experience impacted your quality of life and social participation?’ There is room to grow that evidence.”

Schwegel stated in her application that her ultimate career goal is “to become a leading educator and researcher in rehabilitation sciences, with a focus on providing high-quality and relevant information to OT practitioners and students.”

She’s well on her way to that goal.

The TiDe Program is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R25HD109110.

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