PhD Alumna Sarah Gilliland Exemplifies High Standards in Scholarship, Teaching, and Athletic Competition
Sarah Gilliland, PT, DPT, PhD, CSCS, received her PhD in Education from UCI in 2015. She also holds a DPT in Physical Therapy from Chapman University (2008) and a BA in Human Performance and Health Sciences from Rice University (1998). In addition to her academic achievements, Dr. Gilliland competes in Masters-level diving competitions, most recently taking the national masters age group titles on 1-meter and 3-meter spring-board as well as winning the 1-meter and 3-meter springboard events at the Pan American Masters Championships. Below she shares her thoughts about her academic career and her commitment to maintaining an active life style.
I began my profession journey as a high school math and physics teacher working for an all girls’ school in Palo Alto, California. In addition to teaching, I had started a triathlon team at the school and worked with the cross-country team. I loved being in the classroom, but my work with the athletes reminded me of interests and questions I had about physical therapy that I had not explored. After six years of high school teaching, I went back to school to get my Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree at Chapman University and pursue clinical practice in physical therapy. I never lost my passion for teaching, and began teaching as adjunct faculty in the physical therapy program at Chapman and soon realized that I wanted to better understand how students were learning to integrate basic and clinical science content to engage in clinical problem solving.
Completing my PhD in Education at UCI provided me with the opportunity to more deeply understand the different theoretical perspectives on teaching and learning and their implications for research in physical therapy education. I was fortunate to be working with Professor Judith Sandholtz, whose approach to mentoring (and love of dark chocolate) were an excellent match for my needs. The strategies that Judith helped me develop as I worked through each of the benchmarks in the PhD program are concepts I now share with other faculty and research colleagues as they work to develop their own research agendas. The community of researchers (both faculty and fellow PhD students) provided an ideal space for exploring research questions, gaining friendly peer feedback, and shaping my research agenda. The foundation I gained in educational theory while pursuing my PhD at UCI has enabled me to now become one of the “go to” people in the physical therapy education community as others are looking to better understand teaching and learning and develop their own research.
The years since I graduated from UCI in 2015 have been very productive in my career. In 2015 I was named an Emerging Leader by the American Physical Therapy Association in recognition of my research and service at the national level within the association. In 2017 I was elected Vice Chair of the Scholarship of Education (educational research) special interest group for the American Physical Therapy Association. In this role I currently run monthly teleconferencing meetings for strategizing and advancing educational research within physical therapy. I was selected to present at the inaugural Kay Shepard Qualitative Research Symposium at the Combined Sections Meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association in February of 2017. In June of 2017 I traveled to Cape Town South Africa to present at the World Congress for Physiotherapy.
I began 2018 by accepting an offer for the position of Associate Professor of Physical Therapy at West Coast University in Los Angeles. This new position provides me with opportunities to not only continue to develop my research and teaching, but also explore new leadership roles. In June of 2018, I received the Dorothy Briggs Memorial Scientific Inquiry award for 2018 from American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) recognizing the impact of a paper published from my dissertation in the premiere journal for the APTA (The Physical Therapy Journal). In October of 2018 I received the Alumni of the Year award from the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program at Chapman University in recognition of my contributions to the profession in the past year. I presented the alumni address at the 2018 white coat ceremony, welcoming the new first year DPT students to the profession of physical therapy.
Moving forward, I am continuing my research work to advance our understanding of teaching and learning in physical therapy education, specifically focused on students’ development of clinical reasoning. I will be presenting on a panel with the top researchers in physical therapy education (who recently completed the seminal study of Physical Therapy Education for the 21st Century focused on identifying the signature pedagogy for physical therapy) at the 2019 Combined Sections Meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association in Washington DC. This panel will be joined by other highly regarded educational researchers including Pam Grossman. I am working in a continuing partnership with another educational researcher (who shares a background in K-12 educational work and is now working in medical education research) to produce publications that “translate” theories and practices established in K-12 teaching to connect with the medical and health sciences education audience. I continue to consistently present my research at multiple national physical therapy conferences each year, and I was recently featured in a researcher profile by the Foundation for Physical Therapy, Inc, which funds physical therapy research, including three scholarships I had received during my doctoral studies at UCI.
Outside of my work, I believe that maintaining an active lifestyle is critical for overall well-being. I took up springboard and platform diving in 2013 while I was working on my dissertation at UCI. I had previously been involved in triathlon and swimming, but wanted a new challenge that demanded my focus in a different way. The mental and physical challenge of learning new skills helped me maintain my focus through my dissertation and within my career. I began competing in Masters (the sports category for ages 21 and up) diving competitions at the national level in 2014. In 2017 I competed at the FINA Masters Diving World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. I placed 7th on the 1-meter and 6th on the 3-meter springboard events. In 2018 I took national masters age group titles on 1-meter and 3-meter spring-board as well as winning the 1-meter and 3-meter springboard events at the Pan American Masters Championships. In recognition of my accomplishments in 2018, I was named Masters Diver of the Year by the Mission Viejo Nadadores diving team (the team that I train with). I have also built connections between my physical therapy professional work and personal interest in diving by developing injury prevention screening assessments for the junior diving team.