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Remembering Ann Gentile

Friends, colleagues and former students recall a brilliant mind and an indelible personality

Howard N. Zelaznik, Professor of Health and Kinesiology & Associate Vice President for Research, Purdue University

I was a junior at Brooklyn College, majoring in psychology and physical education.  More importantly I was a varsity tennis player.  Dr. Gentile visited BC on Tuesdays and Thursdays to teach the first motor learning course.  My tennis Coach and Professor Toby suggested I take it, as she was on his dissertation committee.  The class started at 3:30.  Dr. Gentile would come in, take off her coat, light a cigarette and start teaching.  She was without a doubt the best lecturer I have ever encountered either as an undergraduate or graduate student.  She had a compelling theme for each and every lecture, but more importantly there were a series of logical consequences of the themes that we students had to discover.  This challenge put fear in many a student; but she forced all of us to expand our intellectual horizons.  About six weeks into the course, the tennis season starting ramping up.  She was clear that I would receive no special consideration even if I was the team captain and number one player.  Even after this “tough love” I decided that I wanted to have a career like hers.  So, I asked her about how to become a professor.  She invited me up to TC.  I met her graduate students; attended a seminar.  After living in Brooklyn my entire life, I did not want to commute to TC, so she advised me to apply to the U of Michigan and work with an individual named Dick Schmidt.   I did, and my career and new life were launched.  Whenever I would attend the Society for Neuroscience conference, I would have lunch with Dr. Gentile and her current set of graduate students.  Periodically, I would send her copies of papers that I was proud of.   She stayed my mentor over a period of 40 years.  I was so thrilled when I was invited to give a talk at her retirement symposium.  But, nervous knowing she would be in the audience and I would have to pass muster.

Ann has two major, groundbreaking areas of intellectual achievement.  The first was a Quest 1972 paper on a “Working Model of Skill acquisition with emphasis on teaching”.  This model has served as foundation in Pedagogy and in Physical Therapy.  There were two key intellectual insights in this paper.  First, one cannot consider the learner as a self-encapsulated individual living in a bubble who just has to figure out how to move.  No, the learning lives in an environment, and it is the information in the environment that “forces” the learning to discover how to perform.  Second, after the learner produces an attempt, the problem now is what to do next.  To explore this issue, Gentile developed a two by two decision matrix to describe the decision process of the learner and how a teacher can assist the learner.  These revolutionary ideas can be seen in models of learning proposed by dynamical system theorists who have expanded and fleshed out the insights of Ann Gentile.

In latter portions of her career she was more interested in discovering the processes of learning in individuals who had comprised neuromuscular systems due to aging or disease.  This work produced surprising (at the time) results that recovery of function was not a dream unfulfilled.  With proper technique and perseverance, our neuromuscular system was plastic and could remold itself to regain function.

Finally, Dr. Gentile was an absolute brilliant thinker who was not afraid of aptly criticizing the most prestigious individuals after a talk.  She was a great logician, experimentalist and theorist.  A great void needs to be filled by future scientists of movement.

 

Richard Magill, Helen “Bessie” Silverberg Pliner Professor Emeritus in Kinesiology, Louisiana State University, and Adjunct Professor of Movement Sciences, Teachers College

She was a national and international leader in the study of motor skills learning and motor control. She published some highly influential work in the 1970s that changed the way many scholars thought about the skill learning processes and variables that influenced motor control of complex, coordinated physical activity. She also was an important influence on the fields of physical and occupation therapy by providing a new way of thinking about the development of clinical interventions by presenting motor learning and control theory bases for the development of those interventions.

 

Jean Held, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Emerita, University of Vermont

I am a physical therapist (now retired) who stumbled across two of Ann’s courses when I first began graduate study at Teachers College.  She questioned my enrollment in one of the courses, which was a seminar in the Ed.D. program in Motor Learning and Motor Control (ML/MC), and was open only to doctoral students in the program.  I convinced her to allow me to continue in the seminar, and that made all the difference in my life!  Over the course of that year, I decided to resign my position as Coordinator of Rehabilitation at St. Vincent’s Medical Center of Richmond (Staten Island) and applied and was accepted into the Ed.D. program in ML/MC. During that same time period, Ann decided to initiate a part-time master’s program in ML/MC, and to market it to, among other disciplines, Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists.  Given the timing of these decisions, I became the first Coordinator of the Master’s program.  Within 2 years, there were 55 students enrolled in the MA program.  As a part of these changes, she initiated the Annual Conference in Rehabilitation and Movement Sciences, which involved key researchers in the Movement Sciences as well as leaders in physical and occupational therapy. ( I think the conference continues today, although I am not sure of its exact title.) The Conference was open to multiple disciplines, and the first one ran for 5 days!  During the day, speakers presented about their research, and participants were able to discuss these presentations in small groups, led by graduate students in the ML/MC program.  In the evening, the graduate students were able to meet in a smaller venue to dig deeper into the research presented that day, with all of the speakers that day interacting together.  Thus began a vital dialogue between clinicians and researchers in the basic sciences and the clinical disciplines that continues today. 

As a student in the Ed.D. program, I became interested in Ann’s research about recovery of function after brain damage.  Her work on recovery of locomotion after brain damage in specific areas of the sensorimotor cortex in rats was important to those of us who treated people with stroke and other diseases or injuries affecting the brain.  Her research was most important because she analyzed many levels in her research:  pathology (microscopic analysis of the lesions), biomechanics (of constrained locomotion) and function (speed and accuracy of said locomotion). Not much research at the time used such multi-level analyses.  She studied a number of factors that influenced both the speed and quality of the recovery. 

In addition to her research on recovery of function, her seminal research in the study of motor learning has influenced not only educators, but also clinicians.  Her taxonomy of tasks changed the way that physical therapists evaluated their patients in order to understand better the nature of the patients’ impairments.  In addition, the taxonomy has helped therapists to understand better how to set up therapy sessions in order to help patients improve their function; i.e., how to structure their environment during the therapy session. 

The combination of the results of her recovery of function research and her motor learning research has been invaluable to the practice of physical and occupational therapy.  She demonstrated a rare ability to bridge information and concepts from multiple disciplines, and led the direction of interdisciplinary research in the movement sciences. 

As a professor and mentor, Ann taught us how to think differently; how to critically analyze literature and research findings; how to effectively communicate information, whether orally as a teacher or clinician, or in writing. She was dedicated to her profession, and gave greatly of herself to her students and colleagues.  She has influenced countless graduates of the program, and in turn, her influence has been passed on to many, many students in physical education and the rehabilitation professions.  For me, I found her guidance was central to my many roles after graduating from Teachers College: teaching, clinical practice and administration.  She was one of a kind, and will be greatly missed, but always remembered.

 

D. Michele Basso, Professor & Director of Research, Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences

Ann holds a very special place in my life.  She made me more than I knew I could be - as a person, a therapist and a neuroscientist. She had the highest expectations of her students and this standard of excellence pushed me to levels I didn't know were possible.  She was one of the best teachers I ever had. Her skill in making the complexity of neuroscience understandable was better than anyone I encountered since leaving TC. Perhaps the thing I value most about her and try to emulate every day was her scientific rigor.  She taught me to look past long streams of numerical data and "see" the movement, behavior and recovery that generated the numbers. It's a skill that I try to instill in all of my PhD students.  I take some pride and solace that her brilliance lives on, at least in a small way, with the scientists I have trained.

 

Karen Zumwalt, Evenden Professor Emerita, Teachers College

I was so honored to stand beside Ann and read her TC Medal for Distinguished Service Citation at TC’s doctoral graduation in May 2009. Her scholarly and programmatic contributions to her field were impressive accomplishments.  But for me and countless other faculty members equally worthy of mention would have been her tireless commitment to the well-being of the TC community.  We depended on Ann’s historical perspective, her sharp mind, integrity, no-nonsense directness and willingness to speak up. She was a courageous and vigilant advocate for faculty governance, fairness and equity. But she wasn’t just talk. Over the years, as a faculty member and in various administrative roles, she actively worked to shape academic and personnel policies at the college.  She shaped my view of what a TC faculty member could and should be.

 

Virginia Overdorf (Ed.M., Ed.D.), Professor of Kinesiology, William Paterson University

She was a gifted teacher and instilled in her students a love for research that keeps me still doing research even tho I'm retired. She was definitely a woman ahead of her time in our profession.

 
Genevieve Pinto Zipp (Ed.D. ’96, M.Ed. ’92), Professor of Interprofessional Health Sciences & Health Administration, Seton Hall

She was a true mentor to so many not only in relation to motor learning and control but as a person.


D. Michael McKeough (Ed.D. ’77, M.E. ’75) ), Professor, Department of Physical Therapy, California State University Sacramento

I hear her in my head daily and I hear both her hard side and her soft side. She touched so many of our lives. Her passion and role model helped to fuel our passion and define what a good neuroscientist does. We are all richer for having had her in our lives and poorer for her passing.


Susan Higgens (Professor, Department of Kinesiology, San Francisco State University)

Ann was most definitely a major influence on my intellectual and scholarly development.  And, to top it off, quite a hoot to hang with.  An amazing person whose legacy is as solid as stone.


Ree Arnold (Ed.D.), Professor Emerita, Montclair State University

As one of the earliest students in the Motor Learning program, I am indebted beyond measure to Ann.  A large part of my sadness is that her powerful thinking and masterful teaching has been silenced.


Catherine Dean, Head, Department of Health Professions, Macquarie University

Her impact has multiplied through our roles in teaching and research and it has transformed physiotherapy practice.


Anne Rothstein (Ed.D., M.A.), Professor & Director, Center for School/College Collaboratives, Lehman College

She was my mentor and a friend whose insights and expertise changed the direction of inquiry in motor skill learning and impacted all of us. Her work lives on in perpetuity.”


Roberta Shepherd, Honorary Professor, University of Sydney

The attitudes and scholarship of Ann Gentile and Jim Gordon and many others shone a beacon for me on the world of movement science which I try to emulate. This year I am being awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Health Science and an Alumni award for Professional Achievement, both from Sydney University, put up by students of mine who are now mostly professors...Janet Carr would have been similarly honoured were she still alive. I know she also felt most warmly about Ann’s contribution.

Published Wednesday, Feb 17, 2016

Friends, colleagues and former students recall a brilliant mind and an indelible personality

Howard N. Zelaznik, Professor of Health and Kinesiology & Associate Vice President for Research, Purdue University

I was a junior at Brooklyn College, majoring in psychology and physical education.  More importantly I was a varsity tennis player.  Dr. Gentile visited BC on Tuesdays and Thursdays to teach the first motor learning course.  My tennis Coach and Professor Toby suggested I take it, as she was on his dissertation committee.  The class started at 3:30.  Dr. Gentile would come in, take off her coat, light a cigarette and start teaching.  She was without a doubt the best lecturer I have ever encountered either as an undergraduate or graduate student.  She had a compelling theme for each and every lecture, but more importantly there were a series of logical consequences of the themes that we students had to discover.  This challenge put fear in many a student; but she forced all of us to expand our intellectual horizons.  About six weeks into the course, the tennis season starting ramping up.  She was clear that I would receive no special consideration even if I was the team captain and number one player.  Even after this “tough love” I decided that I wanted to have a career like hers.  So, I asked her about how to become a professor.  She invited me up to TC.  I met her graduate students; attended a seminar.  After living in Brooklyn my entire life, I did not want to commute to TC, so she advised me to apply to the U of Michigan and work with an individual named Dick Schmidt.   I did, and my career and new life were launched.  Whenever I would attend the Society for Neuroscience conference, I would have lunch with Dr. Gentile and her current set of graduate students.  Periodically, I would send her copies of papers that I was proud of.   She stayed my mentor over a period of 40 years.  I was so thrilled when I was invited to give a talk at her retirement symposium.  But, nervous knowing she would be in the audience and I would have to pass muster.

Ann has two major, groundbreaking areas of intellectual achievement.  The first was a Quest 1972 paper on a “Working Model of Skill acquisition with emphasis on teaching”.  This model has served as foundation in Pedagogy and in Physical Therapy.  There were two key intellectual insights in this paper.  First, one cannot consider the learner as a self-encapsulated individual living in a bubble who just has to figure out how to move.  No, the learning lives in an environment, and it is the information in the environment that “forces” the learning to discover how to perform.  Second, after the learner produces an attempt, the problem now is what to do next.  To explore this issue, Gentile developed a two by two decision matrix to describe the decision process of the learner and how a teacher can assist the learner.  These revolutionary ideas can be seen in models of learning proposed by dynamical system theorists who have expanded and fleshed out the insights of Ann Gentile.

In latter portions of her career she was more interested in discovering the processes of learning in individuals who had comprised neuromuscular systems due to aging or disease.  This work produced surprising (at the time) results that recovery of function was not a dream unfulfilled.  With proper technique and perseverance, our neuromuscular system was plastic and could remold itself to regain function.

Finally, Dr. Gentile was an absolute brilliant thinker who was not afraid of aptly criticizing the most prestigious individuals after a talk.  She was a great logician, experimentalist and theorist.  A great void needs to be filled by future scientists of movement.

 

Richard Magill, Helen “Bessie” Silverberg Pliner Professor Emeritus in Kinesiology, Louisiana State University, and Adjunct Professor of Movement Sciences, Teachers College

She was a national and international leader in the study of motor skills learning and motor control. She published some highly influential work in the 1970s that changed the way many scholars thought about the skill learning processes and variables that influenced motor control of complex, coordinated physical activity. She also was an important influence on the fields of physical and occupation therapy by providing a new way of thinking about the development of clinical interventions by presenting motor learning and control theory bases for the development of those interventions.

 

Jean Held, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Emerita, University of Vermont

I am a physical therapist (now retired) who stumbled across two of Ann’s courses when I first began graduate study at Teachers College.  She questioned my enrollment in one of the courses, which was a seminar in the Ed.D. program in Motor Learning and Motor Control (ML/MC), and was open only to doctoral students in the program.  I convinced her to allow me to continue in the seminar, and that made all the difference in my life!  Over the course of that year, I decided to resign my position as Coordinator of Rehabilitation at St. Vincent’s Medical Center of Richmond (Staten Island) and applied and was accepted into the Ed.D. program in ML/MC. During that same time period, Ann decided to initiate a part-time master’s program in ML/MC, and to market it to, among other disciplines, Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists.  Given the timing of these decisions, I became the first Coordinator of the Master’s program.  Within 2 years, there were 55 students enrolled in the MA program.  As a part of these changes, she initiated the Annual Conference in Rehabilitation and Movement Sciences, which involved key researchers in the Movement Sciences as well as leaders in physical and occupational therapy. ( I think the conference continues today, although I am not sure of its exact title.) The Conference was open to multiple disciplines, and the first one ran for 5 days!  During the day, speakers presented about their research, and participants were able to discuss these presentations in small groups, led by graduate students in the ML/MC program.  In the evening, the graduate students were able to meet in a smaller venue to dig deeper into the research presented that day, with all of the speakers that day interacting together.  Thus began a vital dialogue between clinicians and researchers in the basic sciences and the clinical disciplines that continues today. 

As a student in the Ed.D. program, I became interested in Ann’s research about recovery of function after brain damage.  Her work on recovery of locomotion after brain damage in specific areas of the sensorimotor cortex in rats was important to those of us who treated people with stroke and other diseases or injuries affecting the brain.  Her research was most important because she analyzed many levels in her research:  pathology (microscopic analysis of the lesions), biomechanics (of constrained locomotion) and function (speed and accuracy of said locomotion). Not much research at the time used such multi-level analyses.  She studied a number of factors that influenced both the speed and quality of the recovery. 

In addition to her research on recovery of function, her seminal research in the study of motor learning has influenced not only educators, but also clinicians.  Her taxonomy of tasks changed the way that physical therapists evaluated their patients in order to understand better the nature of the patients’ impairments.  In addition, the taxonomy has helped therapists to understand better how to set up therapy sessions in order to help patients improve their function; i.e., how to structure their environment during the therapy session. 

The combination of the results of her recovery of function research and her motor learning research has been invaluable to the practice of physical and occupational therapy.  She demonstrated a rare ability to bridge information and concepts from multiple disciplines, and led the direction of interdisciplinary research in the movement sciences. 

As a professor and mentor, Ann taught us how to think differently; how to critically analyze literature and research findings; how to effectively communicate information, whether orally as a teacher or clinician, or in writing. She was dedicated to her profession, and gave greatly of herself to her students and colleagues.  She has influenced countless graduates of the program, and in turn, her influence has been passed on to many, many students in physical education and the rehabilitation professions.  For me, I found her guidance was central to my many roles after graduating from Teachers College: teaching, clinical practice and administration.  She was one of a kind, and will be greatly missed, but always remembered.

 

D. Michele Basso, Professor & Director of Research, Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences

Ann holds a very special place in my life.  She made me more than I knew I could be - as a person, a therapist and a neuroscientist. She had the highest expectations of her students and this standard of excellence pushed me to levels I didn't know were possible.  She was one of the best teachers I ever had. Her skill in making the complexity of neuroscience understandable was better than anyone I encountered since leaving TC. Perhaps the thing I value most about her and try to emulate every day was her scientific rigor.  She taught me to look past long streams of numerical data and "see" the movement, behavior and recovery that generated the numbers. It's a skill that I try to instill in all of my PhD students.  I take some pride and solace that her brilliance lives on, at least in a small way, with the scientists I have trained.

 

Karen Zumwalt, Evenden Professor Emerita, Teachers College

I was so honored to stand beside Ann and read her TC Medal for Distinguished Service Citation at TC’s doctoral graduation in May 2009. Her scholarly and programmatic contributions to her field were impressive accomplishments.  But for me and countless other faculty members equally worthy of mention would have been her tireless commitment to the well-being of the TC community.  We depended on Ann’s historical perspective, her sharp mind, integrity, no-nonsense directness and willingness to speak up. She was a courageous and vigilant advocate for faculty governance, fairness and equity. But she wasn’t just talk. Over the years, as a faculty member and in various administrative roles, she actively worked to shape academic and personnel policies at the college.  She shaped my view of what a TC faculty member could and should be.

 

Virginia Overdorf (Ed.M., Ed.D.), Professor of Kinesiology, William Paterson University

She was a gifted teacher and instilled in her students a love for research that keeps me still doing research even tho I'm retired. She was definitely a woman ahead of her time in our profession.

 
Genevieve Pinto Zipp (Ed.D. ’96, M.Ed. ’92), Professor of Interprofessional Health Sciences & Health Administration, Seton Hall

She was a true mentor to so many not only in relation to motor learning and control but as a person.


D. Michael McKeough (Ed.D. ’77, M.E. ’75) ), Professor, Department of Physical Therapy, California State University Sacramento

I hear her in my head daily and I hear both her hard side and her soft side. She touched so many of our lives. Her passion and role model helped to fuel our passion and define what a good neuroscientist does. We are all richer for having had her in our lives and poorer for her passing.


Susan Higgens (Professor, Department of Kinesiology, San Francisco State University)

Ann was most definitely a major influence on my intellectual and scholarly development.  And, to top it off, quite a hoot to hang with.  An amazing person whose legacy is as solid as stone.


Ree Arnold (Ed.D.), Professor Emerita, Montclair State University

As one of the earliest students in the Motor Learning program, I am indebted beyond measure to Ann.  A large part of my sadness is that her powerful thinking and masterful teaching has been silenced.


Catherine Dean, Head, Department of Health Professions, Macquarie University

Her impact has multiplied through our roles in teaching and research and it has transformed physiotherapy practice.


Anne Rothstein (Ed.D., M.A.), Professor & Director, Center for School/College Collaboratives, Lehman College

She was my mentor and a friend whose insights and expertise changed the direction of inquiry in motor skill learning and impacted all of us. Her work lives on in perpetuity.”


Roberta Shepherd, Honorary Professor, University of Sydney

The attitudes and scholarship of Ann Gentile and Jim Gordon and many others shone a beacon for me on the world of movement science which I try to emulate. This year I am being awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Health Science and an Alumni award for Professional Achievement, both from Sydney University, put up by students of mine who are now mostly professors...Janet Carr would have been similarly honoured were she still alive. I know she also felt most warmly about Ann’s contribution.

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