Theresa Sukal Moulton, DPT/PhD ’12, has learned that life is all about timing.
When she arrived at Northwestern University to pursue a master’s degree in biomedical engineering in fall of 2003, the Doctor in Physical Therapy and PhD in Engineering Program, of which she would become the first graduate, didn’t even exist.
But while working in the lab of Jules Dewald, PT, PhD, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences (DPTHMS), as a graduate student, Sukal Moulton developed an interest in understanding what happens in adults following a stroke.
Her pursuit of knowledge coincided with Dewald’s drive to begin offering a first-of-its kind program meshing the skills of an engineer with the applied science background of a physical therapist.
So in 2006, Sukal Moulton began PT school to help gain a bigger-picture vantage point and broader understanding of the clinical components that might help make her research studies more relevant and her interactions with participants more refined.
“I think that having clinical experience really improved the research questions I was asking and my ability to carry out successful experiments with young people,” said Sukal Moulton, who decided to focus on pediatrics for her PhD research. “It was a very natural flow to start the DPT/PhD (Eng) program because it was around the time when I was trying to figure out how I could gain practical, hands-on experience in the clinic. I got to come in on the leading edge, get my PhD and have the opportunity to earn a DPT as well.”
In coordination with the Departments of Biomedical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical Engineering/Computer Science, the DPTHMS began offering the program, which awards graduates a DPT from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine as well as a PhD from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. The joint program is meant to marry two disciplines for one clear benefit: improved rehabilitation therapies and technologies for patients with movement disorders.
“What is nice about an engineer-physical therapist is that they can talk two languages without an accent,” said Dewald, professor in PTHMS, physical medicine and rehabilitation, biomedical engineering. “They can talk the engineering language and they talk the movement disorder pathophysiology language as well, seeing both sides of the equation. In that regard, these graduates are going to be highly sought after, highly unique individuals.”
There are currently 11 students enrolled in the DPT/PhD (Eng) program with an additional student enrolling this fall. The dual degree, the only of its kind in the country, offers individuals interested in movement and rehabilitation sciences the training to help them become the next generation of leaders in engineering, rehabilitation sciences, physical therapy, and device development for the study and restoration of human function.
“We found that the most difficult aspect of the dual-degree program for the students has been switching from the PhD to DPT work, and back,” said Ana Maria Acosta, PhD, research assistant professor in PTHMS and director of the dual-degree program. “From our experience with the first few students in the program, we realized that it is not so straightforward to make these transitions. As a result, we have adjusted the timing of the DPT program to allow students enough time to complete most of their engineering coursework, develop the aims for their PhD dissertation, and take the qualifier examination for PhD candidacy.”
Sukal Moulton, who had been working as a pediatric PT at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, is now headed to Washington, D.C., to begin a post-doctoral fellowship in the lab of Diane Damiano, PT, PhD, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where she will investigate the coordination of lower extremities in children with cerebral palsy using non-invasive brain imaging.
Her doctoral dissertation focused on the use of engineering tools to quantify the expression of upper extremity weakness, loss of independent joint control, and loss of independent limb control in childhood hemiparesis, or weakness affecting one side of the body. It is noted for illustrating that the timing of brain injuries in infants and young children affects the movement disorders observed and measured in adolescence.
“With this dual program, I feel like I got a much greater sense of where my rehabilitation focused research fits in with the PT field in general. Beyond my own research area, I think that the faculty here in the physical therapy department has given me a lot of tools in terms of honing my own ability to diagnose and treat movement problems and increasing my desire to really know the literature, to really understand what has been done with research and how that might guide the treatment of a particular patient,” Sukal Moulton said. “I found a refined ability to interact with patients in an empathetic and professional way and the DPT/PhD (Eng) program has helped me carry this over into the way I interact with research participants and their families to get the best data possible in an effort to improve our understanding and treatment of childhood movement disorders.”
DPT/PhD (Eng) students receive funding through the generous support of the medical school and a training grant from the NIH and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.