‘Strong and thriving’

RHB Celebrates 20th anniversary, name change

By Ryan Clark
CHS Communications Director

More than 70 students, faculty, staff and alumni gathered virtually last week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Sciences Doctoral Program — as well as its official name change to the Rehabilitation and Health Sciences PhD Program, which will take place in the fall.

Hosted by Esther Dupont-Versteegden, PhD, and director of the RHB program, the celebration was held virtually on May 27 and featured speakers like: Susan Effgen, PT, PhD, the first director of the program; alumna Alyssa LaForme Fiss, PT, PhD; and three current students who presented their latest research.

“As I prepared my remarks to start this event I wanted to reflect upon the past, touch on the present and look into the future,” Dupont-Versteegden said.

“I would like to emphasize that this program is first and foremost an interdisciplinary program between different institutions and this is the strength that current students and alumni will mention the most,” she continued. “The collaboration between different disciplines has made the program what it is today: strong and thriving.”

She reported that the program currently has 99 alumni who have gone to different places around the world to become leaders in research, education, service and administration.

And even though the program was actually approved in 2000, the events of the past 18 months made it difficult to gather to celebrate — even in a virtual way.

“My answer to the conundrum is: Since the first academic year of the program was 2000-2001, I think we can still call it the 20th anniversary,” Dupont-Versteegden said.

Originally, the Rehabilitation Sciences program started with students in the fields of communication sciences and disorders, occupational therapy and physical therapy. At the time, the College was called the College of Allied Health Professions. Leadership for the RHB Program changed when Carl Mattacola, PhD, ATC, took over from Effgen as the Director of the Program in 2007, and again when Dupont-Versteegden took over in 2016.

“The program was started out of the need for faculty and researchers in our disciplines,” Effgen said. “And at that point in time it did not include Athletic Training — just PT, OT and speech — and (we) had a desperate need for faculty and researchers. It’s cross-disciplinary, and it’s done well all these years later. It’s worked.”

Over the years the makeup of the faculty and the potential for student funding changed in such a way, that students from different disciplines were interested in getting a PhD in Rehabilitation Sciences. Currently, the program features students from the four already-mentioned disciplines as well as exercise physiology/kinesiology, music therapy and clinical nutrition. There are currently 34 active students in the program and seven new students are joining in the fall 2021 semester.

“I look forward to learning more about your successes,” Dean Lephart said in a video message where he highlighted the College’s growth, as well as the program’s upcoming name change.

In the fall, the name will change from ‘Rehabilitation Sciences Doctoral Program’ to ‘Rehabilitation and Health Sciences PhD Program.’

“This reflects the even more interdisciplinary nature,” Dupont-Versteegden said. “It will allow us to admit students from the Physician Assistant Studies Program, which is a profession in need of more PhD-trained individuals.  Also, a number of our clinical professions have gone to a doctoral clinical degree, hence the change to PhD instead of ‘doctoral program.’”

Alyssa LaForme Fiss, PT, PhD, an alumna of the program and now a professor of physical therapy at the Texas Woman’s University, reflected on her time at UK and shared a bit about her career journey.

“There’s a commitment to excellence that has allowed this program to grow and excel over the past few years,” she said, before outlining her career and giving sage advice to those looking to achieve similar goals.

She ended by quoting actress and comedy writer Tina Fey, who said, “Just say yes and you’ll figure it out afterwards.”

“Embrace new adventures and new challenges,” LaForme Fiss said. “I hope that if you do, you too will look back in 20 years with fondness of the journey you have been on.”

Dupont-Versteegden said she hopes that future students recognize the program for what it is: an interdisciplinary program that prepares students to become leaders in their fields of research, education and service, wherever they may serve in those roles.

“The strength of our alumni shows how successful our program is and what students can achieve with a degree from the RHB program,” she said. “Therefore, I think that the future is bright. We will continue to provide the excellent education that we have for the last 20 years. Well, 21 years! We will welcome students from different disciplines into the program, to become even more diverse, and we will learn from one another on how to construct the best research teams to acquire the knowledge and evidence we need to provide better health care for our clients and better education for our students.”

Interested in the RHB program? Visit our site here.

Did you miss out on the celebration? See the program in its entirety here.