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Faculty Focus: Stacey L. DeJong, PT, PhD

Date: Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Stacey L. DeJongDepartment of Physical Therapy

What is your hometown? 

Sioux City, IA

When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?

March 2014

How/when did you become interested in science and medicine? 

In middle school and high school, I always enjoyed science classes more than other subjects. Around the same time, I learned about several health care professions by volunteering at the local hospital as a ‘candy striper.’

What interested you to pursue a career in Physical Therapy?

I was active in high school athletic teams, especially field events and weight lifting. My mom suggested that I might look for ways to combine my interests in science, healthcare, and exercise. Physical therapy was a natural fit.

I confirmed my interest through several job-shadowing experiences, including an Easter Seals center for pediatric rehabilitation, an outpatient orthopedic private practice, and a burn unit in an acute care hospital.

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career? 

I have been fortunate to have outstanding mentors at every stage of my career.

I first learned the value and excitement of clinical research from J .C. Gallagher, MD, when I worked as a research assistant during my undergraduate years. Wayne Stuberg, PT, PhD, helped me develop clinical expertise in pediatric physical therapy while fostering my interest in research, and he encouraged me to be a lifelong learner. Catherine Lang, PT, PhD, my PhD advisor, models many qualities that lead to a successful research career, including ambition, vision, organization, clear communication, and a focus on productivity. Currently, Richard Shields, PT, PhD, FAPTA, helps to shape my career by providing opportunities, advice, and support, as well as the latitude to develop my own research interests. He is an inspiring example of leadership, integrity, and dedication as a clinically-oriented scientist.

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?

I chose the University of Iowa because of the high value placed on both research and education.

The Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science has a strong national reputation for its highly ranked Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, and its longstanding tradition of excellence in rehabilitation research, through the PhD Program in Physical Rehabilitation Science.

The University of Iowa’s faculty members are united to provide exceptional patient care while advancing innovations in research and medical education. How does your work help translate new discoveries into patient centered care and education?
Over the past 20+ years, basic science discoveries have shown that the nervous system is not immutable after injury, but rather has immense capacity for reorganization, driven by behavioral experience. Implications for the clinical care of patients with neurological disorders, however, have been slow to emerge, and optimal rehabilitation methods to maximize recovery remain unclear.

I focus on applied clinical research in people with upper limb movement impairment after stroke, aiming to better understand how exercise and activity early after stroke can promote beneficial patterns of neuroplasticity.

What kinds of professional opportunities or advantages does being a faculty member at an academic medical center provide?

Faculty members at academic medical centers are surrounded by opportunities for continual professional growth. By contributing to scientific discoveries ourselves and by learning about advances in other fields, we can maintain an up-to-date knowledge base that benefits students, patients, and our own research and teaching efforts. By influencing the next generation of clinicians and researchers, faculty members can multiply their impact on the future.

Please describe your professional interests.

As a clinical researcher in rehabilitation, I study upper limb movement impairment and recovery in people who have had a stroke. I am especially interested in how the nervous system adapts and reorganizes after injury, to reestablish connections and to support the return of functional movement.

I am using non-invasive brain stimulation and electromyography to create cortical maps that localize and quantify the connections between brain cells and muscles. I am interested in whether this type of cortical mapping early after stroke can predict the extent of movement recovery and to what extent activity-based interventions can drive neuroplasticity in a positive direction.

The overall goal of this research is to improve rehabilitation for people with stroke-related movement problems, by advancing the science of neuroplasticity and its influence on clinical practice.

What led to your interest in your field?

I provided clinical care as a physical therapist for many years before returning to graduate school and pursuing an academic career. Through experiences with patients, I saw the powerful influence that carefully prescribed activity can have on movement control and independence, while also recognizing that neurological recovery is often limited and incomplete. These experiences led to my current interest in activity-dependent neuroplasticity. I hope to contribute to clinical practice by discovering ways to maximize the positive effects of neural reorganization after injury.

How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?

The collaborative and comprehensive environment at the University of Iowa creates a culture that values scientific discovery in all areas and close connections between people with different perspectives.

My work is enhanced because I have access to mentors and collaborators in related fields, for example neurology, neuroscience, psychological and brain sciences, and health and human physiology. By seeking input and valuing different perspectives, we are more likely to generate project ideas that have a broader impact and appeal to funding agencies.

What are some of your outside interests?

Spending time with family, reading, and watching baseball.

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

I try to see things how they are, realistically. Then, I try to imagine how things could be, optimistically. Work is the process in between.

If you could change one thing about the world (or the world of medicine/science), what would it be?

I would end the human suffering caused by violence, injury, illness, poverty, etc.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?

The scientific foundations of physical therapy continue to grow, consistent with the rapid increase in the number of physical therapists earning PhD degrees and conducting research. In clinical practice, there is much more emphasis on using evidence to prescribe optimal cost-effective interventions to help patients improve their function and quality of life.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?

Be resilient. Respond effectively to challenges and move forward in a positive way.

What do you see as "the future" of medicine/science?

I think there will be an increasing ability to personalize healthcare for each individual. We will understand more about each person’s genetic predispositions, their lifestyle, and their environmental exposures. This will provide more opportunities to promote health and prevent disease, as well as more targeted treatment approaches.

In what ways are you engaged with the greater Iowa public (i.e. population based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your leadership/expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagements off campus, etc.)?

In the past year, I interacted with two of the other physical therapy education programs within Iowa. I presented my research during a seminar for faculty and students at Des Moines University. I discussed the path toward becoming a tenure-track faculty member, as part of a professional development workshop for clinicians at St. Ambrose University.

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