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Occupational Science Summit: Bringing Together The Profession’s Scientists

By Stephanie Yamkovenko

On March 11, nearly 80 scientists and researchers attended the first occupational science summit in St. Louis, Missouri. For 3 days, occupational therapy researchers presented their research to colleagues to garner feedback and critiques. The summit was sponsored by Washington University School of Medicine, University of Southern California, University of Illinois-Chicago, and Thomas Jefferson University, and aimed to bring together senior scientists, mid-level scientists, and entry-level scientists to further develop the research in occupational therapy.

Learn more about the research presented in each of the four groups at the Occupational Science Summit.
The summit was a grassroots initiative started by several senior scientists in occupational therapy. “There have been a number of us within the profession that have been senior scientists who have been trying to figure out ways to identify and network with the midcareer scientists who are coming behind us,” says Carolyn Baum, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA. “I have been particularly concerned about this ever since I was president of AOTA and, in my own work, have been building three generations of scientists here at Washington University.”

Baum began talking with other senior scientists 5 years ago about an idea to have several universities host a summit specifically for scientists in occupational therapy. Unlike AOTA’s Annual Conference & Expo, which is more focused on giving clinicians the information and evidence they need to improve practice, the organizers wanted the summit to develop mid-level and entry-level scientists and be a gathering of researchers seeking feedback and networking for future research collaborations.

Following a call for papers, Baum reviewed the abstracts and sorted them into four groups—(1) pediatrics, (2) rehabilitation and technology, (3) neurorehabilitation and neuroscience, and (4) health and participation of people with long-term disabilities and chronic conditions. Baum says the four groups emerged from the topics of the submitted abstracts and the organizers developed the four groups to meet the individual needs of the researchers. During the summit, nearly 50 scientists presented their research in 90-minute sessions or with poster presentations. Look for future articles in this series about each of the four groups and information about some of the research that was presented.

“At first I thought I might be disappointed that there was no mental health group since that’s my background, but what I found was that across every group there was a huge appreciation for the mental health part of the interventions,” says AOTA Vice President Virginia Stoffel,  PhD, OT, BCMH, FAOTA. “I really felt like there was a wonderful integration.”

Although AOTA did not play a role in developing the summit, the Association sent staff and leaders to attend. “It was important for AOTA to be supportive of this grassroots research summit, because it benefits our profession as a whole,” says Maureen Peterson, MS, OT/L, FAOTA, chief professional affairs officer of AOTA. “It was a chance to see the work of many of our emerging scientists—occupational therapy research is in good hands.”

AOTA President Florence Clark, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, agrees. “It was really evident that we have a large core, a critical mass, of people who are already very well positioned for a future in terms of producing the science we need to secure that occupational therapy is going to meet societal needs in the future,” she says. Clark participated in the summit as the chair of the neurorehabilitation and neuroscience group.

Overall, the organizers believe the summit was a success in bringing together scientists. “It was a wonderful opportunity for researchers and scientists to come together, to network, and to share ideas,” says Yolanda Suarez-Balcazar, PhD, chair of the rehabilitation and technology group. “Junior faculty members were able to get feedback and a few researchers and scientists are already planning for future collaborations.”

On the final day of the summit, a group of researchers spoke during a panel discussion about securing grant funding for occupational therapy research. “We had a panel discussion with three individuals who have received federal funding,” says Suarez. “This is great because occupational therapy researchers are getting funding and are at the table.”

Even with the excitement surrounding the grant funding and the work of mid-level and entry-level scientists, the organizers agree that occupational therapy needs to develop more researchers.

“We need to look within the field to see how we can continue to promote research and have more career scientists,” says Mary Lawlor, ScD, OTR/L, FAOTA, chair of the pediatrics group. “People compared our field to psychology where there’s both a research track and a clinical track at the PhD level—we really need to think about ways to ensure that we’re capturing enough of our new talent into research.”

Clark encourages all members to help point occupational therapy students and practitioners who are interested in becoming career scientists to doctoral academic programs so they can pursue a degree and gain the skills they need to be successful researchers.

Baum says this year’s summit exceeded her expectations and goals, and the continued need for this type of event was apparent to her and the other organizers. They are already planning a second annual summit next year at the University of Illinois–Chicago. “Career scientists have unique needs and need to have people who are going to critique their work,” says Baum “Having these kinds of networks can only help facilitate the overall development of our knowledge that will really show occupational therapy’s contribution in society.”

The goals of the summit are in line with AOTA’s Centennial Vision and can help occupational therapy get closer to meeting its goals. “It was an exhilarating experience because it just indicated how far we’ve come on our commitment to being a science-driven, evidence-based profession,” says Clark. “I felt extremely optimistic about the future of our profession.”

Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA’s staff writer.