Physical Therapy Program Hosts Convocation and White Coat Ceremony

Physical Therapy Convocation

The GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) Physical Therapy (PT) Convocation, held on Oct. 23, centered on one theme: excellence.

“The Physical Therapy Program at the George Washington University is one of the jewels in our crown when we think about academic excellence and the excellence of our faculty and staff,” said Joseph Bocchino, Ed.D. ’03, M.B.A., senior associate dean for health sciences and associate professor clinical research and leadership at SMHS.

Excellence within the program has filtered to its students, including those of the Classes of 2016 and 2017, whose Physical Therapy Student Organization officers were recognized at the ceremony. “We really do think that you are the premier students in the country: it’s your dedication, it’s your leadership, it’s your passion, and your compassion for your fellow students, for the community, and for the profession that you have chosen,” said Erin Wentzell, DPT, assistant clinical professor of physical therapy and health care sciences.

For the same two classes, Marisa Birkmeier, DPT, director of clinical education and assistant professor of physical therapy and health care sciences at SMHS, and Rhea Cohn, DPT, assistant director of clinical education and assistant professor of physical therapy and health care sciences at SMHS, presented the Excellence Awards, to cheers and applause.

Shifting to residents, SMHS faculty Jennifer Halvaksz, DPT, academic director of the Orthopedic Residency Program and assistant clinical professor of physical therapy and health care sciences at SMHS, and Elizabeth Ruckert, DPT, director of the MedStar-GW Neurologic Residency Program and assistant professor of physical therapy and health care sciences at SMHS, recognized the 2015 residency program graduates. Three residents completed their orthopedic specialties in 2015, and the 2015 neurologic residency saw one graduate, John Kofmehl. “John was a true pleasure to work with,” Ruckert said. “He was always excited for a new learning opportunity or volunteer opportunity and has been truly committed to best care for his patients and for the profession as a whole.”

The theme of excellence continued with keynote speaker and renowned spinal cord injury rehabilitation expert Edelle Field-Fote, PT, Ph.D., FAPTA, director of spinal cord injury research at the Shepherd Center. “Her career as a physical therapist and a leading authority in spinal cord injury rehabilitation is synonymous with excellence,” said David Scalzitti, Ph.D., OCS, assistant professor of physical therapy and health care sciences at SMHS. “I can go on listing her numerous achievements, but instead will summarize her work succinctly with one word: ‘wow.’”

Field-Fote, in addressing the newest class of physical therapists, outlined three pieces of advice, each derived from her own experiences. The first, embracing the possibility of failure, is rooted in the beginnings of her career. Field-Fote, who had a background in engineering when she started her Ph.D. work at Washington University in St. Louis, found herself fascinated by central pattern generators, a group of circuits controlling different levels of the nervous system. Her focus was on animal models, specifically turtles and their scratching behaviors. Through experimentation with stimulating — or “tickling” — part of the turtle’s spine during transection, Field-Fote discovered that activating two areas at once resulted in coordinated scratching in opposite directions. “I thought it was an amazing discovery,” she said. She hadn’t, however, considered the likelihood of a successful career path once she earned her Ph.D., and turtle scratching didn’t seem promising — until her work led to a post-doc.

“I had to get over the fear of what was going to happen if I continued along this path of studying turtle scratching before I could take the steps out into my new career,” she said.

Field-Fote also encouraged students to follow their ABCs — assessments, best clinical practices, and classification — of PT practice, and to think of themselves as “movement scientists,” mirroring their clinical techniques on the scientific method.

“All in all, if we take these three pieces of advice, you will make the best use of technology as it becomes available, and the sky’s the limit,” she said. “I am so excited for you because I know you have so many wonderful opportunities ahead of you, and I’m looking forward to welcoming you into our profession.”

As part of that welcome, first-year DPT students participated in a White Coat Ceremony. “The White Coat Ceremony marks or symbolizes an important milestone, particularly for the group just embarking on their professional journeys as health care providers,” said Joyce Maring, DPT, Ed.D., program director for the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program and chair and associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Health Care Sciences at SMHS. “In keeping with that awareness that we don’t make the journey alone, and that we do it best when we do it together, it’s also our tradition that the second- and third-year students who are here, who have already participated in the ceremony, will assist the first-years in donning their white coats.”

With that, second- and third-year students helped their new classmates into white coats donated by the Class of 2015. Tucked inside the pockets were notes of encouragement and advice from members of the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 classes.

“Wow, what a night. What an awesome night,” said Margaret Plack, DPT, Ed.D., interim chair of clinical research and leadership, and professor of physical therapy and health care sciences at SMHS, after the recitation of the health sciences pledge. In a final word of advice for the evening, she urged all of the students to keep in mind one thing: passion. “You have to have passion. Keep that fire burning, because if you maintain your passion, you will be excellent.”