Inspiring Women in PT is an opportunity to acknowledge some truly incredible women in the field of physical therapy. Women who are pushing our profession forward, and deserve to be widely recognised for their efforts. We have interviewed some amazing female physios to find out their ‘why’, as well as some gems of wisdom they have gained throughout their careers. Each month we will introduce you to a different physical therapist and get to know more about them and what makes them tick. We are honoured to put together this initiative with one of the most influential female physios in the profession, Dr. Karen Litzy.
Here is part 3, featuring Physiotherapist and Associate Professor, Dr Tasha Stanton – enjoy!
Intro: please tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
I am a clinical pain neuroscientist working with the Body in Mind Research Group out of the University of South Australia. I study the role that the brain plays in pain and my work specifically explores how information from numerous sources can shape our perception of our body and of our environment. I do a lot of work with multisensory illusions using virtual and augmented reality as well as focusing on research that aims to understand the mechanisms by which our treatments work (or don’t work!).
I have had quite a journey to get where I am – I did my original physiotherapy training at the University of Alberta and then after graduation worked as a physio for a few years at Millard Health Centre – a tertiary rehabilitation centre for injured workers. That position was incredibly challenging and I basically got to the point where I had way too many questions about why I was doing a certain treatment with a certain patient. It drove me crazy that I was making clinical decisions based on little to no scientific evidence and after what I consider was my quarter life crisis (where I moved to Jasper and basically made $0/hr after paying for rent), this made me re-evaluate my career. So I gave research a shot – I did my Master’s in Rehabilitation Science at U of A with Prof Greg Kawchuk, studying the biomechanical effects on the spine of different stabilization exercises. It was really hard but I learned so much and realized that I loved research! I was then fortunate enough to receive an international recruitment scholarship to do my PhD at the University of Sydney/the George Institute for Global Health with a renowned physiotherapy research group where I was supervised by Prof Jane Latimer, Prof Chris Maher, and Associate Prof Mark Hancock. There I studied clinical prediction rules for back pain, collaborating with Prof Julie Fritz from Utah.
While I received excellent training in my PhD and loved the people I worked with there, my heart wasn’t completely in the subject matter and this is when I sought out Prof Lorimer Moseley to work on clinical pain neuroscience with him. Since then I have been fortunate enough to receive numerous competitive early career research fellowships from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Australia, and most recently a Career Development Fellowship (NHMRC) to support my work in studying the cortical contributions to knee osteoarthritis. It has been a wild ride (and stressful at times not knowing if I had a job!) but it has been wonderfully fulfilling. I now supervise a research group of approximately 20 people and I am currently at Oxford collaborating with Prof Charles Spence and learning new techniques to assess crossmodal modulation. Besides my research interests, I am an avid runner/hiker, an incredibly enthusiastic (but poor) karaoke-r, a wine connoisseur, and a previous nationally ranked varsity wrestler!
1. Can you describe a challenge in your career and what you learned from it?
I think overall, one of the biggest challenges in my research career is trying to stay in it! The research field has become so competitive that it can be overwhelming how much you need to do to stay in the running for the next fellowship level. While I think this can motivate people to do their best, it can also have drawbacks in that you don’t have as much time to just think – to ponder new ideas and to really shape where you want your research to go. This time to think, versus focusing on publishing, is essential for real scientific breakthroughs. But from this challenge, I have learned to pick my projects more carefully. While I would love to work with so many people, I really have had to prioritize projects that are within my skillset and that are really interesting to me.
Further, I definitely have run into some challenges within the professional context. One happened just recently when I took my husband to the conference dinner of a meeting at which I was the invited speaker. I quickly realized how much unconscious bias exists in that if you are at a professional event as a couple, it is largely assumed that the reason you are there is because of the man. I had a shocking experience, which I documented in a tweet that went viral, of being dismissed as ‘only the partner’ which culminated in being referred to as ‘the less significant other’. This was a situation, however, where I have very much appreciated getting a bit older and understanding that I do not need to be polite at my own expense. I firmly corrected this person by letting them know – No, I am the invited speaker – I am here because of my expertise in pain science and you’ll see my keynote lecture tomorrow. It was glorious!! But I do find this type of bias challenging and, frankly, exhausting. I notice that I often have to prove my competence to people whereas for my husband, for example, his competence is largely assumed – he would actually have to prove incompetence (which would not happen – he is an excellent anesthesiologist!). And thus sometimes I get annoyed at the narrative that largely places responsibility on women for not having leadership roles (e.g., lean-in movement) while conveniently ignoring the real negative impact of continually having to prove your own competence. Is it any wonder that women are less likely to put their names forward for things? I would argue that this actually isn’t a gender thing – if we put men in the same situation where their competence was continually being questioned, we would see the same thing. Instead, I think it is time to examine the system. For example, the gender disparity in professional contexts hit home when statistics like this come out: in Australia, if your name is Dave you are more likely to have had grant success than if you are a woman (http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2017-11-24/australian-research-has-a-daversity-problem/9178786). Are you kidding me?! Change the system – blind the review to the applicant’s gender! Situations like this have really pushed me to speak out loudly but in as constructive manner as I can.
2. Name one accomplishment you are particularly proud of and why.
I am particularly proud of receiving the Young Tall Poppy of the Year award for excellence in science and in its communication. I strongly believe that even the best science will have limited impact if we cannot convey the findings in a way that is accessible to various audiences. While this might seem simple to do, keeping the message accurate while making it understandable to someone who might have no experience in the area is incredibly challenging. Unfortunately, usually accuracy falls to the wayside – we see this in errant health headlines all the time! Thus because of the value and importance I personally place in scientific communication, it was really special to receive such an award that acknowledged and celebrated my efforts in this area.
3. Knowing where you are in your life and your career what advice would you give to your younger self?
I would also say to a younger me – trust your instincts. I found it really stressful when I was trying to make the decision of whether or not to go into research. But I knew that I was a massive nerd. Thus my heart (and certainly my brain) told me that academia was a good fit, but I really didn’t seek out people in academia to talk to about this option because I felt so unsure about what I wanted to do. I thought that unless I was absolutely certain, I would be wasting their time. How silly! It wasn’t until my best friend started her Masters that I really considered research as a career pathway for me. Thank goodness she did!
4. Can you name a mentor, colleague, professor, etc that changed the way you practice? If so can you tell us about it?
It is really hard to just name one because I have had the opportunity to work with so many amazing people that have influenced me in a lot of ways. Working with Greg Kawchuk in my Masters – I learned how to dynamically present my work and engage the audience. Greg is an excellent and charismatic presenter who very much thinks outside of the box and so my work with him at such an early career stage was incredibly formative. With Jane Latimer/Chris Maher/Mark Hancock I learned how to perform rigorous research that challenged my own biases and I also learned some very important skills about not taking myself or my career too seriously. You have to get good at laughing when things don’t go your way and if you surround yourself with good people, this becomes much easier. Speaking of good people, during my PhD at USyd I worked with an amazing group of PhD students. It was one of the most fun times in my life being surrounded by interesting, bright, and engaging people. Then with Lorimer, I learned to think big and to not avoid trying something just because everyone else thinks it is crazy. I think Loz has definitely had the biggest impact on me as a researcher because he has a combination of curiosity, passion, and inspiration, but with a strong and purposeful set of values that extend not only to research but to life. He is an amazing researcher and person and I feel very fortunate that I have had the opportunity to work so closely with him. And last, through visiting research fellowships, I have also had the chance to work with people like Prof Bob Coghill (Cincinnati) who is a world leader in pain neuroimaging/spatial aspects of pain and seeing his continual enthusiasm for research and that he is so generous with his time just blows me away and reminds me to keep that mindset myself. Reflecting on these amazing people and my own experiences, I have come to the conclusion that I think the biggest impact that we can have on someone is to believe in them and to challenge them to be excellent and I think my supervisors and mentors were unrivalled in this sense.
5. Scenario question: you have been invited to speak at a conference but are unable to attend. Can you recommend another #womeninPT to the conference organizers?
Yes in a second! I have a long list! I would recommend Prof Michele Sterling, Dr Flavia Di Pietro, Dr Ebonie Rio, Dr Carolyn Berryman, Dr Mary O’Keefe, Dr Felicity Braithwaite, Prof Jane Latimer, Sandy Hilton, Sarah Haag, Dr Luciana Macedo, Dr Abby Tabor, Dr Jane Chalmers, Dr Emma Karran, Prof Julie Fritz, Roxanne Azoory, Dr Karen Litzy, Dr Luciana Machado, Dr Luciola Menezes-Costa, Dr Siobhan Schabrun, Dr Tory Madden, Dr Trudy Rebbeck…and the list goes on!
6. How you stay up to date with the latest evidence in physical therapy, and why do you believe that is important?
My job is to lead new research which then requires a lot of reading to stay up to date. However, this reading has gotten more and more focused such that I can’t say that I am up to date on the latest clinical evidence in physical therapy (i.e., that is outside my field).
I personally love twitter for keeping up to date with the latest evidence! It is such a helpful medium to catch new papers that are of interest, but that I wouldn’t necessarily have had time to search for myself. Further, I rely a lot on physiotherapy specific conferences. For example, I go to the Australian Physiotherapy Association Conference and get my fix of the new physio-relevant research coming out. I feel very strongly that is essential that we keep up with the latest evidence, particularly if working as a clinical physiotherapist. For so many of our treatments we do not understand the underlying mechanism by which they work. Thus there is a real possibility that we may be doing things for reasons that don’t always make sense. Reading new papers is there to help us to move away from black and white dichotomies, and to appreciate the grey, namely the wonderful complexity that we as humans bring to the treatment encounter.