When Elizabeth Skidmore, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, associate professor and chair at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Occupational Therapy, got an email from the Executive Office of the President of the United States, her mind went blank.
"It took me a minute to process what it might mean."
What it meant was that Skidmore had won the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, which is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.
Skidmore, whose research focuses on cognitive impairments and mood changes after acquired brain injury, was nominated on behalf of the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research (NCMRR), a center within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that fosters and advances interdisciplinary rehabilitation research.
"To receive the nomination from NCMRR is an outstanding honor for the occupational therapy profession, and for our science,” Skidmore says.
The early career awards, established by President Bill Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach. This year’s 105 recipients are employed or funded by federal departments ranging from the Department of Defense to the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Skidmore’s research focuses on interventions designed to promote independence and community re-engagement after stroke and other forms of brain injury. She says that individuals with brain injury frequently experience cognitive impairments that contribute to significant long-term disability and these individuals may have difficulty with simple activities such as bathing, dressing, or walking, as well as more complex activities such as managing their home or completing school- or work-related activities. Her NIH-funded work has identified innovative rehabilitation treatments that can be started within a few days after brain injury onset and are associated with significant reductions in disability in the long term. These treatments have been developed and tested within six of the inpatient rehabilitation units in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Rehabilitation Institute. Skidmore is planning the next phase of her research program, which is focused on studying a wide-scale implementation of these treatments in selected rehabilitation centers outside the region.
She says the national recognition proves that occupational therapy is viewed as a valuable scientific profession.
“Occupational therapy is new among the disciplines of science. When an occupational therapy scientist gains recognition with such a prestigious national award, it elevates the prominence of the science that we all do,” Skidmore says. “This is a strong validation that occupational therapy is an important member of the scientific community.”
And just how great is the recognition? All awardees will be honored in person in Washington, DC, this spring.
“These early-career scientists are leading the way in our efforts to confront and understand challenges from climate change to our health and wellness,” President Barack Obama said in a press release.
Skidmore says her hope is that the award inspires future OT scientists.
"Perhaps this can influence future funding for occupational therapy science. But even more important, hopefully it inspires those junior investigators who are training to become scientists in the field to feel more confident in the work that they do.”
More information about the award is on the NIH website.