Laurel Abbruzzese | Teachers College Columbia University

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Laurel Abbruzzese

Laurel Abbruzzese, an Ed.D. candidate in the Movement Sciences and Education program, is committed to preserving one of the nation’s most valuable treasures—the senior population. Although the Atlanta native did not always envision herself in a career in geriatrics, this dancer-turned-physical therapist has discovered her life’s calling. When queried about her long-range goals, she smiles and replies, “to impact the practice of fellow clinicians through research endeavors, as well as the lives of older adults.”

Laurel Abbruzzese, an Ed.D. candidate in the Movement Sciences and Education program, is committed to preserving one of the nation's most valuable treasures-the senior population. Although the Atlanta native did not always envision herself in a career in geriatrics, this dancer-turned-physical therapist has discovered her life's calling. When queried about her long-range goals, she smiles and replies, "to impact the practice of fellow clinicians through research endeavors, as well as the lives of older adults."

Georgia is a long way from New York City, but Laurel is no stranger to the northeastern United States. In fact, her high school years were spent in New England where she attended the prestigious St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. A performing artist with the gift of dance, Laurel's talents led her to an independent study at The Ailey School, the official school of the internationally renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, during her senior year. What was intended as a temporary relocation to New York for one year segued into a second when she received a merit scholarship to continue her studies at The Ailey. With such an offer that could not be refused, Laurel deferred her freshman year of undergraduate studies to continue pursuing this passion.

But she did not have far to travel when the time finally came to return to her academic coursework. Just a few train stops uptown was Columbia University, and that is where Laurel earned a degree in psychology. Although studying in the social sciences, an injury that she had sustained had sparked an interest in physical therapy, and she knew that schooling in that field would be next on her agenda. "It became quite obvious that life as a dancer could be short," she says. Upon graduating in 1991, she began coursework at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons for her Masters degree. Her career objective was to amalgamate her two primary interests-dance and physical therapy-by working with performers who were suffering from injuries and undergoing rehabilitation. Clinical internships afforded her the opportunity to work in this area while at P & S.

"They were two long, intensive years," she laughs when recalling her time in the physical therapy program. Still focused on working primarily with dancers, her career path changed course after graduating in 1994 when a move back to Atlanta to wed her then-fiancé meant a limited timeframe within which to secure employment. As a result, Laurel found herself working in geriatrics rehabilitation in a position with Emory University. She describes the experience as both "rewarding" and "challenging," and one that vividly demonstrated the extent to which "physical therapy impacted their lives." While she originally thought that this would be short-term employment before specializing in working with dancers, Laurel says that she "ended up loving it," so much so that she continued to work with geriatric patients at the Allen Pavilion, a neighborhood division of Columbia's New York-Presbyterian Hospital, when she and her husband moved back to New York City the following year.

Laurel worked at the Allen Pavilion for the five-year period of 1995-2000 with patients receiving both acute and outpatient care. For her, the significant difference between her practices in Atlanta and New York was the transitory nature of acute care at the Pavilion. Although she screened patients and identified their needs, she feels that she made the greatest impact once she was able to treat them more extensively as outpatients. Moreover, she encountered a language barrier that she had not further south since she worked closely with a native Spanish speaking population in the City, so Laurel enrolled in Spanish for Medical Professionals to bridge the communication gap between her patients and herself.

In 1997, Laurel began taking courses at Teachers College in Movement Sciences, a program in the Department of Biobehavioral Sciences, with a specialization in motor learning and control. A former professor at P & S whom she calls "phenomenal" had received a doctorate from the College, and this was a definite draw for her. Laurel had also worked closely with TC professor of psychology and education Antoinette Gentile whose scholarly interests include the effects of exercise on people suffering from Parkinson's Disease. The College awarded Laurel the Ed.M. in May of 200, and she transitioned smoothly into the Ed.D. program the following fall.

Making that next step a little easier was Laurel's receipt of the Gates Millennium Scholarship and a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH). The Gates award is granted to students who exhibit leadership, community involvement, and strong academic records. It provides funding for tuition, fees, and living expenses for four years. The NIH award, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, is a pre-doctoral fellowship that supports Laurel's research training by funding tuition, participation in conferences, and a monthly stipend. It is a 2-1/2 year grant awarded on the bases of the quality of research conducted by the recipient's institution of study as well as his intended research focus and potential to contribute to the field. The combination of the scholarship and grant monies enabled Laurel to leave her physical therapy position to pursue her doctorate with a concentration in kinesiology full-time for the last three years.

Currently, she is examining issues of balance control in the elderly. She conducted her fieldwork by first presenting workshops on improving balance in senior centers and then inviting attendees to visit her program's laboratory for study purposes. "It's a very technical, labor intensive process once you get them [in the laboratory]," she admits. Because hers was not an intervention study, she referred people to follow-up care as she determined necessary rather than treat them herself. Now that the data collection process is complete, Laurel is revising and improving the writing of her findings for her dissertation and hopes to defend it next semester with the aim of graduating in May 2004.

Laurel's role at TC is more than that of student as she also is an instructor for her program. She teaches a tutorial in motor learning in which students research the strategies a novice employs when learning a new motor skill such as either snowboarding or juggling a soccer ball with his feet. Students engage in qualitative and quantitative research methodologies for this course. Laurel also facilitates a fieldwork class that is a follow-up to the tutorial. In this course, students explore intervention strategies while working with patients who need to improve motor skills. She has taught the tutorial for two years (preceded by a stint as the course teaching assistant four years ago), and this will be her second year instructing the fieldwork course. In addition, she is the teaching assistant for Laboratory Methods in Biomechanics in which students apply biomechanics to the study of movement behavior by means of video-based data collection and computer-based kinematic analysis.

It is apparent that Laurel is pleased with not only her area of study, but also with the faculty with whom she works in her program. She says Terry Kaminski, an adjunct assistant professor of movement sciences who is also a physical therapist, is excellent and readily available to offer feedback and to read drafts of her writing. Students in her program, she believes, are able to know the three key faculty very well. "There's quite a bit of interaction and feedback; there's quite a bit of support and they've been available. That's a strength." Laurel also cites the collegiality among the program's graduate students and says that everyone is supportive of one another.

Her aspiration is to ultimately act as a research coordinator and principal investigator of grants that underwrite her scholarly pursuits. While she enjoys being in the classroom, she sees that as an adjunct role that she will play. "Our profession is really making the push towards more evidence-based practice. That's the push, and we need researchers to continue that." Already she is sharing her work with practitioners and experts, having presented twice at the Society of Neuroscience and at the combined sections meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association. She is also in the process of submitting her work for publication.

Laurel's vision is one of scientific inquiry coupled with altruism. "You want to know what are the most efficient strategies for helping someone," she says. She would like to contribute to the body of knowledge in her area of expertise while remaining involved at the community level in wellness programs. "I hope I'm able to establish treatment protocols for better practice patterns," Laurel expresses, because after all, research benefits man best when thoughtfully applied to improve his quality of life.

Published Friday, Dec. 19, 2003