From Associate Dean to Professor Emerita: Mary Corcoran, PhD, To Retire

Dr. Mary Corcoran posing for a portrait

Mary Corcoran, PhD, professor of clinical research and leadership at the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), is prolific and productive, inquisitive and driven, a boon to SMHS. 

“Dr. Corcoran is the rarest of all faculty, what we call a triple threat,” said Reamer Bushardt, PharmD, PA-C, professor and senior associate dean for health sciences at SMHS. “She is a master educator and scholar, she has distinguished herself through her university service and senior leadership roles, and she is a nationally recognized occupational therapist.” 

Despite her move from full-time professor to Professor Emerita, Corcoran’s retirement plans include nothing less than effecting change, which is among her greatest skills and her most powerful legacy.

“Her legacy at GW is marked by the many successful faculty and students she has mentored, the systems she built to support faculty and staff advancing their careers, and innovative research programs that leverage interprofessional collaboration and systems thinking to tackle complex problems in health care,” Bushardt added. “Mary always sees the best in people and has a talent and passion for developing others. She is one of the most caring and generous people I have ever known." 

Here, she discusses her career, her retirement, and her future goals.

Q. Can you tell us about your background? What prompted you to go into the health sciences?

Corcoran: My health sciences background includes occupational therapy, or OT (BS from Indiana University, 1977), social gerontology (MA from University of Pennsylvania, 1984), and city/regional planning (PhD from University of Pennsylvania, 1992). These programs provided the foundation to study the caregiving styles of individuals tending to a family member with dementia, and to teach a range of topics to health care professionals. I chose OT because it allows me to simultaneously draw on my creative side and my love of scholarship to make a difference in people’s lives. 

Q. What brought you to GW? What roles have you had here?

Corcoran: One day in 1996, my husband announced that his company was closing their Philadelphia office and that we would need to move. I had just received my first independent grant from the National Institute for Aging and needed to find an academic home. GW fit my needs professionally and was located in an area where I knew my family would thrive. I spent my first 12 years at GW in the role of research faculty, primarily conducting research but also helping to shape health sciences at GW. My roles have included interim chair of the Department of Health Care Sciences, associate dean for health sciences faculty development, and program director for two programs that I helped to establish (the Post-Professional Doctorate of Occupational Therapy and the PhD program in Translational Health Sciences). 

Q. What achievements are you particularly proud of?

Corcoran: About 10 years ago, I decided to focus on “legacy goals” — meaningful initiatives that shape the future in positive ways. 

My faculty development role led me to establish an instructional design/technology resource, known as IMPACT, or Instructional Media and Programming to Advance Collaboration and Teaching Initiative. I am particularly proud of the IMPACT Initiative because it has promoted high-quality instructional design for health sciences faculty since 2012. 

The PhD program in Translational Health Sciences is the first PhD program in SMHS, and it reflects the unique character of health sciences — scholarly, collaborative, diverse, and mission-driven to continuously improve health care. The particular focus of this program is to teach health care providers (primarily) to conduct research in an efficient and effective way so as to quickly translate knowledge to action. The interest in the program has been tremendous, with approximately 15 students matriculating each year. I am very proud of the PhD program curriculum and the excellent work that has been achieved by program graduates.

As part of a sabbatical in 2018, I was able to implement an online, interactive, skill-building program for families caring for an individual with dementia. C-TIPS (Customized Toolkit of Information and Practical Solutions) uses caregiver-generated assessment data in algorithms to suggest relevant ways that caregiving can be made easier. C-TIPS ties together all the lines of research I have initiated in my career, and I am having a marvelous time promoting the program to caregivers.  

Q. Is there a moment or a person who stands out to you from your time here?

Corcoran: Yes … in 25 years, there have been many stand-out moments and people that elicit a whole range of emotions. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues, including how to be a leader (thank you, Joe Bocchino) and an educator (thank you, Paige McDonald). My students have taught me to be organized and precise, and my colleagues have taught me the value of listening to learn. Most recently, the stand-out moment that comes to mind is the great honor of having my colleagues establish the Corcoran Mentored Scholarship for students in the PhD in Translational Health Sciences program.

Q. What will you miss the most?

Corcoran: I will miss working with brilliant people every day to create new and important programs.

Q. What advice would you give to others seeking career paths similar to your own?

Corcoran: Start working on your legacy goals from day one. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are, then listen and learn from them. Be humble — there is always room for improvement. Helping others to meet their potential will help you to meet yours. Don’t be afraid to take chances; at the worst, you will get a lesson in how to “fail better.”

Q. Do you have any plans for retirement?

Corcoran: Yes, but I’m taking some time to figure out specifically how I can contribute. I’m concerned about our country and how we can harness technology to promote the unique civic habits described by Alexis de Tocqueville. How can we use social media to build associations that unite us, help us to practice democracy every day and support solving wicked problems? I have no idea what my part is in that effort, but I sense a “legacy goal” in the making.  

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