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Where’s the science? UPitt program will help create it  

Where’s the science? UPitt program will help create it  

Mark SchmelerPITTSBURGH – One of the goals of a new post-doctoral fellowship program at the University of Pittsburgh is to fill a long-standing void in assistive technology research, says Mark Schmeler. 

UPitt’s Rehabilitation Science and Technology Department announced in July that it received a five-year grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research to support clinicians with post-doctoral fellowships to advance their careers in assistive technology research, as well as practice and policy. 

“Assistive technology is a younger science in the grand scheme of medical sciences,” said Schmeler, an occupational therapist and co-director of the program, called Career Advancement in Assistive Technology Practice, Research & Policy (CAT-PRep). “Occupational therapists and physical therapists have always been considered allied health professionals and never looked at as people who create their own science. As time goes on, they’ve built their own evidence, but they haven’t always gotten it to the implementation stage. So, there’s no real guidance on who needs what and why. Then when we get into a situation where we’re fighting fraud or (advocating) for coverage, and we’re asked, ‘Where’s the science?’” 

UPitt began accepting applications for CAT-PRep in July and plans to award up to five, two-year fellowships with annual salaries of $55,000 each, plus benefits, on a rolling basis. It says the ideal candidates will have a terminal doctorate in a clinical field like occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech language pathology, audiology, medicine or rehabilitation engineering. 

Schmeler acknowledges that not all the candidates applying and, ultimately, enrolled in the program will focus on assistive technology – they might have interests in other related areas, like smart homes or augmentative communications – but for those that do, he’s ready. 

“I do wheelchairs and I’ve always had a whiteboard in my office with every research question that needs to be answered,” he said. “But we’ve never had enough clinical investigators to answer them all.” 

In addition to advancing research, the program will also put OTs and PTs on a professional track that more resembles that of doctors going through residency programs, Schmeler says. 

“Now that OT and PT has gone to a clinical doctorate, why can’t they do a post-doc?” he said. “Why is it just PhDs? (PhDs) don’t have an interest in clinical practice; they’re not going to be able to help us. This will make these OTs and PTs master practitioners and, hopefully, build our capacity to do research. It will two birds with one stone.” 


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