Outstanding Occupational Therapy grad conducts concussion research, advocates for diversity in the OT field

Kalena Giessler Gonzalez on a hiking trail
Kalena Giessler Gonzalez

According to the CDC, 15% of all U.S. high school students self-reported one or more sports or recreation-related concussions over the previous year and returning to competition too soon can result in a more serious brain injury. During her time at Colorado State University, Kalena Giessler Gonzalez was involved in important concussion research. An outstanding grad from CSU’s highly ranked Department of Occupational Therapy, she completed her master’s thesis testing a measure to evaluate athletes with a sports-related concussion for readiness to return to play.

Giessler Gonzalez was also a founding member and president of the CSU chapter of Diverse-OT, a national organization advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession.

Drawn to CSU-OT

Giessler Gonzalez came to Fort Collins from the Bay Area, California, and she feels very fortunate to have been a part of the OT Program.

“I was drawn to the program based on its small student to faculty ratio, opportunities to participate in research, and leading faculty from the OT field,” she said. “Also, Fort Collins is a wonderful place to live with lots of outdoor access and a great community, which was another plus of attending CSU!”

Concussion research

Kalena Giessler Gonzalez in a snowy fieldGiessler Gonzalez is proud of the work she did on her master’s thesis, “The Revised Dual Task Screen: Analysis of Dual Task Motor and Cognitive Costs in Healthy, Young Adult Athletes,” in which she researched the sensitivity of the revised Dual Task Screen, a measure designed by Assistant Professor Jaclyn Stephens. Stephens is developing the measure for use to evaluate athletes with a sports-related concussion to determine whether they are ready to return to playing their sport.

“I was very excited to complete my thesis and learn more about sports-related concussion and current return-to-play protocols,” said Giessler Gonzalez. “I hope to use the knowledge that I have gained from my thesis and advocate for OTs to play a bigger role in working with athletes with concussion. I believe that OT practitioners can have an important role in working with athletes with concussion to help them safely return to meaningful occupations after injury.”

Overcoming COVID-19 challenges

Kalena Giessler Gonzalez with her dog with fall color and mountains in the backgroundAlthough her fieldwork and graduation were delayed by COVID-19, Giessler Gonzalez says it has taught her to be flexible and patient. She is grateful for her amazing classmates, professors and mentors at CSU.

“My thesis adviser, Dr. Jaclyn Stephens, was an invaluable resource for me – she provided me with knowledge and guidance that was instrumental to my developing my love of research and profession skills,” said Giessler Gonzalez. “I learned so much from all of my professors, who were always willing to share their knowledge with me and my classmates. I could not have gotten through this program without my classmates as well – they are collaborative, compassionate, and inspiring! While we weren’t able to be together in person as much as I would have liked, we adapted and helped each other succeed in a challenging grad program.”

Founding the CSU chapter of Diverse-OT

During her grad program, Giesssler Gonzalez was a member of the Student Occupational Therapy Association, a member and vice-president of Pi Theta Epsilon – the OT Honor Society, and a founding member and president of the CSU chapter of Diverse-OT, one of her most meaningful experiences at CSU. Diverse-OT is a national organization which is working to create a more equitable and inclusive workforce.

“During my time at CSU, there were times where conversations in the classroom and outside of it would have benefited from a wider range of perspectives and experiences,” Giessler Gonzalez said. “I felt that I could help create community conversation spaces in our program to help share lived experiences and backgrounds and engage in challenging discussions to strive for a more inclusive and equitable OT experience for current and incoming students.

“To achieve our goal of providing the best possible service to our clients as OTs, we need to make sure that we have an improved understanding of the experiences of the people we will encounter every day in the field. I am so proud of the current Diverse-OT president, Kimberly Rousseau-Simmons, and other members for continuing to develop the organization and ensure it is a valuable and sustainable part of our department.”

Future career

After graduation, Giessler Gonzalez plans to take the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy exam, which is the licensing exam for OTs, and then look for employment in the Fort Collins area. Her dream OT job would be working with individuals with brain injury to help them engage in meaningful occupations. She is also considering pursuing a Ph.D. at some point in the future.

“I am passionate about research and would like to strengthen the field of OT through increased research on the value of our field for clients of all backgrounds,” she said.

The Department of Occupational Therapy is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.