Ph.D. Graduate: A grandmother’s tender voice influences Laura Swink’s career path

Laura Swink“I saw what my grandmother experienced and I knew I wanted to make a difference,” shared Laura Swink.

Now a recent Colorado State University Ph.D. graduate of the Department of Occupational Therapy’s Occupation and Rehabilitation Science program, Swink’s research interests and dreams will continue to come true.

Swink’s interest in occupational therapy began on the east coast where she completed a five-year combined undergraduate/master’s program. Near the end of the program, Swink packed her one suitcase and moved from Ithaca, New York to Denver to complete her final fieldwork assignment. And in Colorado she stayed.

“I loved the area,” said Swink. “I loved the stunning mountains and being able to take a beautiful hike in the day and come back for dinner. I knew I wanted to stay in Colorado.”

After receiving her master’s degree, she worked as an occupational therapist for over three years in a hospital in Denver. She enjoyed working as an occupational therapist; however, she was always interested in research.

Grandmother’s quiet voice

“After seeing what my grandmother experienced having Parkinson’s disease, I knew I was interested in conducting research with people with neurological conditions. I remember her quiet voice,” continued Swink. “As I spent time with my grandmother during my high school and college years, it was important for me to hear her tender voice. It was important to hear her share about her needs and help her have the best quality of life possible.”

Swink’s research interests were not only with people who had Parkinson’s disease but also people with multiple sclerosis or with those who had experienced a stroke or a traumatic brain injury. “I wanted to work on research in promoting healthy lifestyles, helping prevent falls and to provide the skills for people before they were admitted to the hospital,” shared Swink.

Proactive and preventative

Swink with her award
Laura Swink with the notification of her grant

With these research interests in mind, Swink interviewed with Arlene Schmid, associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at CSU. Aware of Schmid’s outstanding work in yoga research, Swink knew that it would be a good fit for her with her research interests in helping individuals being proactive and preventative.

Beginning the Ph.D. program in 2016, Swink was able to receive a small student grant through the LSVT Global foundation which allowed her to integrate group occupational therapy into an ongoing community-based yoga for Parkinson’s program. Her research interests allowed her to conduct research and work with individuals in providing an improved quality of life for those who were experiencing degenerative conditions.

Similarly, Swink adapted a program originally designed by Schmid to meet the needs of people with Parkinson’s disease and created the Merging Yoga and Occupational Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease (MY-OT for PD) program.  Swink began adding an occupational therapy component to an existing class for individuals with Parkinson’s disease. In addition to assisting with yoga sessions, Swink provided self-management tools for participants to help avoid potential falls with simple tips such as removing clutter that may be a tripping hazard to avoiding the temptation to multi-task when moving around the home.

Also, Swink worked as a study coordinator on a grant piloting the combination of gentle exercise and group education for pairs of people with chronic pain with Schmid and Christine Fruhauf, professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

Arlene Schmid and Laura Swink at graduation
Arlene Schmid and Laura Swink

Schmid shared, “I am proud of her work and I look forward to what she does in the future. She is a great example of an occupational therapist who came back to get her Ph.D. degree ready to answer great clinical questions.”

Rewarding experiences

When asked about rewarding experiences, she shared it was the feedback she received from her participants. While conducting the yoga study she heard one participant say, “It may have prevented a couple trips to the hospital.”

“In addition, I enjoyed being able to interact with these participants as an occupational therapist,” commented Swink. “I hope to one day soon have a publication from the MY-OT for PD study. That would be very rewarding.”

New opportunities

Swink has begun a two-year postdoctoral program in Denver funded through the Eastern Colorado Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center. Swink is working with Cory Christiansen at the University of Colorado Denver on a behavior change program for individuals after total knee replacements.

Given Swink’s success as a Ph.D. student, her future looks bright as she continues to fulfill her dreams in research and making a difference in other’s lives — a dream that began several years earlier when she sat near her grandmother and listened intently to her quiet, tender voice.

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