UF hosts nation’s foremost occupational therapy research conference

By Anne Riker Garlington and Jill Pease

Photos by Jason Rogers

The department of occupational therapy at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions recently hosted 90 of the nation’s leading and up-and-coming occupational therapy researchers for the 2024 Occupational Therapy Summit of Scholars.

“We were thrilled to host senior and junior faculty, graduate students and scientists from more than 30 institutions,” said Sherrilene Classen, Ph.D., M.P.H., OTR/L, FAOTA, professor and chair of the UF department of occupational therapy. “Hosting the OT Summit of Scholars is an honor, as it recognizes our leadership on a national stage as a top tier research department.” 

Established in 2012, the summit is considered the premier occupational therapy research conference and is designed for scientists to network, receive feedback on their work, learn about funding opportunities, and find mentors and collaborators. It is open to investigators at every stage of career development.

“This is the one meeting that I look forward to every year,” said Shelly Lane, Ph.D., OTR/L, FAOTA, a professor of occupational therapy and academic program director at Colorado State University. “It’s a small meeting, which I really like. You get to actually talk to people meaningfully and it’s a really unique opportunity to listen and learn from the top researchers in O.T. across the country.”

Khalilah Johnson, Ph.D., OTR/L, FAOTA, an assistant professor in the division of occupational science and occupational therapy at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, has been attending the Occupational Therapy Summit of Scholars since she was a doctoral student.

“I really appreciated the opportunity to get feedback in an intimate space from scholars in O.T. whose work I have been following for most of my career as a practitioner,” Johnson said. “I found that experience to be invaluable. So even after I completed my Ph.D., I continue to come back and interact with the same group that has continuously provided me support as an early career scientist.”

Held June 6-8, UF organizers planned a robust summit schedule featuring oral presentations; talks by representatives of funding agencies and academic journals; faculty, postdoc and graduate student poster presentations; panels on forming strategic partnerships; and tours of UF occupational therapy labs. Excellent graduate student work was recognized through poster awards, which were presented to Samantha B. Randolph of the Washington University School of Medicine, Mequeil Howard, OTR/L, of The Ohio State University, and Makenna Snyder of the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Marco Leao, a Ph.D. candidate at Colorado State University, decided to attend the Occupational Therapy Summit of Scholars to get feedback as he starts the data collection stage of his dissertation.

“I’m in this implementation phase of my dissertation research and there are a lot of questions, a lot of roadblocks that have come up,” Leao said. “I hope the feedback I get from the OT Summit helps me to move forward. It helps to see other people’s work and to get specific input on my questions. I think this will help me to clarify my path on this journey.”

Elizabeth Skidmore, Ph.D., OTR/L, FAOTA, a professor of occupational therapy and associate dean for research at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, had already gained several new insights on the first full day of the conference.

“I always am stimulated in research environments listening to how different people are defining problems and addressing problems through their research,” Skidmore said. “It always triggers new ideas. I’ve already learned about some new frameworks and some new methods I’m going to take back to my lab group. I have been taking careful notes about some new funding opportunities I wasn’t aware of.”

For Neil Harvison, Ph.D., OTR/L, FAOTA, the chief knowledge officer at the American Occupational Therapy Association, the summit provides a chance to meet up-and-coming Ph.D. students and early career scientists, and reconnect with advanced scientists.

“I find the future of occupational therapy science and research to be really, really exciting,” Harvison said. “I think that there’s an acknowledgement throughout the health delivery system at a national level about the importance of participation. And that’s really what O.T. research is all about. It’s not so much about the disease entity, but more about how people are able to participate in society in a positive way.”

The summit is presented through a collaboration between several occupational therapy academic departments, including UF, the University of Washington, Washington University at St. Louis and The Ohio State University. Sponsors include the American Occupational Therapy Foundation, the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, the American Occupational Therapy Association and the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.

“The bottom line is O.T. research is needed,” said Scott Campbell, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the American Occupational Therapy Foundation. “As students enter O.T. programs it’s important they know that research is a potential career path for them and there are great mentors and role models. And I think that’s what happens here at the OT Summit. Here, you can walk right up to a senior investigator and have a conversation with them. There aren’t a lot of other venues where that can happen, and it demonstrates the uniqueness of this event.”