A quintessential example of home-grown talent, Deborah Larsen, PT, PhD, came to Ohio State as an undergraduate, earned two degrees here and now leads the school in which she once studied. In her time as director of Ohio State’s Physical Therapy program and now as director of the School of Allied Medical Professions, the School has grown dramatically in size and reputation, and there is more growth yet to come.
When Deborah Larsen, PT, PhD, first came to Ohio State as an undergraduate student in the mid-1970s, she hardly expected to spend her career here, not to mention play a role in greatly expanding the size and scope of the University’s health sciences training programs.
“Ohio State had the only physical therapy program in the state,” she recalls. “At that time, the other programs I
considered were in Kentucky and Indiana but they only
took students who resided within their borders. There
wasn’t a lot of choice.”
This lack of options was Ohio State’s gain, for both the School of Allied Medical Professions (SAMP), which Larsen was appointed to direct in 2006, and the Physical Therapy (PT) Division that she led from 1996 to 2005.
“She’s a highly effective leader who has helped grow SAMP to national prominence as one of the top-ranked schools,” observes Catherine Lucey, MD, FACP, vice dean for Education in Ohio State’s College of Medicine and associate vice president of Health Sciences Education for Ohio State. From a couple of hundred undergraduates with only a few degree options when it started in 1966, today SAMP has nearly 1,700 students and offers 13 courses of study, including
master’s and doctoral programs.
Larsen was also instrumental in initiating a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, which initially met some resistance within the Division. “One of Deb’s biggest skills is in building teams,” remarks longtime colleague Michele Basso, EdD. Recently appointed professor, director of Research and associate director of SAMP, Basso also taught in the Division from 1996 until last year. “Through producing evidence and salient points, Deb was able to convince the faculty that we needed the advanced program.” The DPT became a part of the curriculum in 2007.
Larsen is a self-proclaimed Buckeye fan, her Atwell Hall office decorated in subtle colors of scarlet and gray. Like Larsen herself, it is toned down and organized, an oasis of calm amid the pushing and pulling of a school that is constantly growing and stretching.
Growing Along With the Profession
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Larsen felt the tug toward medicine in high school, while she was a volunteer in a local hospital. “I was assigned to the ICU and saw people come back from some pretty serious operations,” she remembers. She considered – and discarded – the ideas of nursing and even surgery and, inspired by the best-selling novel Christy, decided to devote her efforts to helping the incapacitated become healthy again. “I especially wanted to work in pediatrics, with children with developmental disorders.” She graduated from Ohio State in 1978 and received her Master of Education in Child Development degree from the University of Toledo five years later.
But she never strayed far from Ohio State, serving as clinical instructor in the Nisonger Center in 1981, and going into a private practice that concentrated primarily on children four years later. “Once I started teaching, I loved it.” That set in motion another degree from Ohio State, a PhD in Psychobiology, which she obtained in 1987. She signed on as an assistant professor in the PT Division three years later, and her star has been rising ever since. Her numerous honors include the Moore Award for Outstanding New Academic Faculty Member, governor-appointed chair of the Ohio Council on Stroke Prevention and Education and, most recently, the 2008-09 Fellow of the Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine Program (ELAM) for Women.
Although Larsen is also an associate dean in the College of Medicine and associate vice president for Health Sciences, she finds time to flex her research muscles as well, “usually with adults; I now mostly work with seniors,” she explains. Along with co-authoring numerous articles and abstracts, her projects focus on the recovery of function following neurologic injury, including measuring methods of recovery and changes in the nervous system related to that recovery. She has been part of a national clinical trial for EXCITE (Extremity Constraint Induced Therapy Evaluation) to evaluate its effectiveness in recovering arm function following a stroke. She also participated in a multicenter trial using magnetic resonance imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation to map changes in the motor cortex associated with recovery of arm function after a stroke. Currently, she is working to measure white matter and cortex changes in the brain that are associated with the recovery of sensory and motor function after stroke.
Strengthening Its Grip
“When I first started teaching full-time, most of the faculty had retired, or were about to,” points out Larsen. As director, she braced the PT Division by leading development of the Master in Physical Therapy (MPT) program, adding faculty as well as helping to generate millions of dollars in grant funding. Today, Ohio State PT graduates are among the highest scorers on national boards.
As head of SAMP, “Deb was able to have all the divisions work as a team to advance the mission of the school, in addition to focusing on their individual programs,” observes Basso. The programs, which range from athletic training to medical dietetics to radiologic sciences to a health sciences major, each have strict criteria for accreditation and licensure, that makes overseeing them quite complex, she adds.
And SAMP keeps extending its reach. With an average of two to three applicants for each spot in the School, competition for admission is stiff, especially at the graduate level. “We need to keep up with the demand,” admits Larsen. “Space has become a real problem; the rooms were built for small classes that now are much larger.”
Plans involve adding a physician-assistant program and developing a pilot course on interprofessional education, where students from different disciplines will use their knowledge to brainstorm and work with patient studies.
Larsen and her husband Glenn are long-time soccer players. And, as the mother of two grown children and keeper of two large dogs, she will no doubt continue to keep all of her responsibilities in proper balance while moving SAMP forward. “Deb is a consensus builder who works closely with others, involving them every step of the way,” observes Lucey.