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SHRS Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Natalie Leland

We are exploring occupational therapy interventions with expert partners in many diverse fields including Bioengineering, Psychiatry, Cardiology and Gerontology. We have nationally recognized laboratories which have received funding from sources including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) and the Department of Defense. Our research has been published in a variety of well-respected, high-impact peer reviewed journals.

A Research Career in OT

Many faculty in the Department of Occupational Therapy have active research programs. Here we feature our faculty, Juleen Rodakowski, Angela Caldwell and Pam Toto. 

Juleen Rodakowski, OTD, MS, OTR/L, FAOTA
Associate Professor and Chair

Juleen Rodakowski’s nationally recognized and federally funded research seeks to slow the progression of disability attributed to early changes in cognition and caregiving. She studies when, how and why rehabilitation services are being provided to community-dwelling older adults. She is actively generating the evidence required to support new, effective models of community-focused care that are responsive to public health needs and evolving federal policies. Her research draws upon her clinical and research training, as well as her experience in geriatric practice. Rodakowski earned her clinical Doctor of Occupational Therapy from the University of Illinois at Chicago and has experience working in acute care and long-term care settings. She obtained research training at the University of Pittsburgh with a one-year postdoctoral training in physical medicine and rehabilitation (T32 HD049307, Boninger, PI) and two years of postdoctoral training in geriatric psychiatry (T32 MH019986, Reynolds, PI). She also completed a Master of Science in Clinical Research in the School of Medicine. Rodakowski subsequently earned an NIH career development award funded by National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (KL2 TR000146; Reis, PI). Her trajectory and research program were recognized by the National Institute on Aging when she was awarded an independent investigator award (R01 AG056351; Rodakowski, PI). Rodakowski is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association Roster of Fellows for Advancing Occupational Therapy for Aging in Place and the Pennsylvania Occupational Therapy Association applauded the significance and impact of her research by presenting her with the Research Award in 2020.

Angela Caldwell, PhD, OTR/L, CLT
Assistant Professor

Angela Caldwell obtained her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Bethany College, her Master of Science in Occupational Therapy from Boston University and her Doctor of Philosophy in Rehabilitation Science from the University of Pittsburgh. Between earning her degrees, Caldwell worked as an occupational therapist in a variety of pediatric settings, including inpatient, outpatient, and home-based early intervention. Her research program emerged from her experience coaching families to promote health and development for young children with developmental delays. Caldwell is the recipient of a scientific career development award, a K12 award funded by the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research and supported by the Comprehensive Opportunities in Rehabilitation Research Training (CORRT) Program (K12 HD055931). She is passionate about minimizing health disparities experienced during early childhood and promoting health for all children. Recently, Caldwell and her team completed a series of pilot studies on the feasibility and effects of a mealtime intervention to improve healthy dietary variety among children from low-income households and under resourced neighborhoods. Currently, she is leading a series of studies to design and test a novel obesity prevention intervention tailored to meet the needs of young children with Down syndrome and their families. Caldwell’s advice for occupational therapists interested in a scientific career is, “Take the time to celebrate success, listen to your critics and embrace the journey. If you practice persistence and follow your passion, you will achieve your goals.”

Pam Toto, PhD, OTR/L, BCG, FAOTA, FGSA
Professor

Pam Toto is an occupational therapist with over 30 years of clinical, teaching and research expertise promoting productive aging. Her research interests focus on the implementation of evidence-based strategies in real-world settings to promote independence, participation and healthy aging in older adults. Specific topics of expertise include frailty, physical activity, fall prevention and environmental modification to prevent disability and promote aging in place. Toto has advanced knowledge on goal setting and readiness for change as behavioral interventions and has served as principal investigator on several studies using Goal Attainment Scaling to reduce disability in community-dwelling older adults. Toto is currently a co-investigator for Modified Application of Cardiac Rehabilitation in Older Adults (MACRO), a multi-site pragmatic randomized controlled trial tailoring cardiac rehabilitation to better meet the needs of older adults funded by the National Institute on Aging. She is also co-primary investigator implementing the Community Aging in Place, Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE) Intervention with family caregivers under the National Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Family Support funded through the Administration on Community Living. Toto is a senior faculty and mentor for the University of Pittsburgh Healthy Home Laboratory and a certified trainer for national evidence-based programs including:

  • Matter of Balance (program to reduce fear of falling in older adults)
  • CarFit (educational program to improve safe mobility for older adults)
  • Skills2Care (program to reduce caregiver burden related to dementia)

Toto’s advice to clinicians is to not be afraid of research; understanding and using best evidence should be part of your everyday clinical practice to provide your clients with the best occupational therapy has to offer.

Student Research Opportunities

The Department of Occupational Therapy Faculty are actively engaged in research studies throughout the year. There are several opportunities for students to become involved in these studies. If you are interested in participating in these research studies, please contact Laura Waterstram, MOT, OTR/L, Director of Research Operations. 

See what student research workers have to say about working in the labs:

"It has been a privilege to participate in the Occupational Therapy Cognitive Performance Laboratory where I have not only developed research skills that will assist me in future projects, but I have also been offered countless opportunities and resources to grow my professional career. I was given an active role in my own research project, put in connection with established, nationally renowned professionals in the field and really got to experience the collaborative effort that is prevalent in every lab in the department. Each lab member took hours out of their week to ensure the team succeeded in our projects and I greatly benefited from the experience. My undergraduate education and career trajectory would not have been the same without the opportunity to work in this lab."
- Jordann Antoan, Rehabilitation Science Student '22

"Working as a research assistant in the Occupational Therapy Cognitive Performance Laboratory has opened my eyes to a whole different side of occupational therapy. I have had the opportunity to be a part of several different projects and I have gained a greater understanding and appreciation for our growing scope of practice as occupational therapists with each new assignment in the lab. The lab has been a place for me to combine the skills I've learned in the classroom and the experience I've had in the clinic to brainstorm how we can continue to contribute to the promotion of health and well-being in society, especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic."
- Rachel Eilers, Doctor of Occupational Therapy Student '22

"My research experience in the Neuromotor Recovery and Rehabilitation Lab has been nothing short of phenomenal. Under the guidance of Amit Sethi, I have been able to expand my knowledge of the scientific and clinical research processes. I believe our current project pertaining to possible post-stroke motor rehabilitation has great promise. I am grateful to Dr. Sethi and the Rehab Neural Engineering Labs for providing me this opportunity and experience that will no doubt help prepare me for future research endeavors."
- Dominic Coutinho, Electrical and Computer Engineering Student '20