Physical Therapy Students Contribute to Brain Injury Research

Doctoral students in the Physical Therapy program pose with their research group

Doctoral students in the College’s Physical Therapy Department gained valuable experience and career insights as part of a research study on sports-related brain injuries.

The College collaborated with Brain Sentry, a privately held maker and distributor of head-impact sensors headquartered in Bethesda, Md., to gather and analyze data related to head impacts and their effects. This highly collaborative and innovative partnership between the Physical Therapy Department and the Athletic Department focused on the College’s three helmeted sports—football, ice hockey, and men’s lacrosse.

While several physical therapy professors and athletic training staff were the primary investigators for the study, physical therapy students were making significant contributions during the process. 

The students helped place impact sensors on the helmets, gathered daily data from the sensors, and conducted monthly physical testing of the student-athletes. Working about three hours a week, Erin Van Buskirk ’15, D ’17 enjoyed applying concepts she learned in class to the study.

“Additionally, I enjoyed spending extra time with members of the other class years (4th and 6th years) and professors,” said Van Buskirk, who has been involved with the project for almost a year. “I find that most of the students and professors in the graduate portion of the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program (DPT) are highly involved in multiple areas of the campus and community so getting a chance to see them out of the typical classroom setting is refreshing.”

Kristin Miller D ’16 transferred into the DPT program after completing her bachelor’s degree at Lafayette College. She cited opportunities such as the Brain Sentry project as one of the reasons she chose LVC.

“I spoke with Dr. (Stan) Dacko prior to applying to the program, and he explained to me the different types of research opportunities within the department,” Miller said. “In addition, the strong reputation of the DPT program in the Central PA region and the C.U.R.E. student-run pro bono clinic were factors that influenced my decision to attend LVC.”

Another student involved in the research, Danny Willey ’15 D ’17, is a former ice hockey player at the College.

“I had been briefed on concussions many times throughout my sports career,” Willey said. “Especially in recent years, concussions have become an important focus in contact sports. By working on this study, it has confirmed my beliefs regarding how important concussion research has become.”

Miller also finds concussions interesting, mentioning how she attended a family member’s football game and followed the sports medicine team on the sidelines, watching as they performed a concussion screening. 

“I have been intrigued by the recent growth in concussion awareness in the sports world and am very interested in learning more about how physical therapists can play a role in prevention, detection, and rehabilitation of concussion injuries,” said Miller, who wants to pursue a career that includes treating patients with vestibular conditions and concussive syndromes. “This project was a great way to get experience in this field.”

In addition to confirming her career aspirations, Van Buskirk emphasized how exciting it was to be part of a program participating in research. She recently attended the American Physical Therapy Association’s Annual NEXT Conference, and heard a presenter discuss how not as much quality research is performed at PT schools nationwide, particularly at small institutions, as is performed in other health related graduate programs. 

“It was reassuring to know that LVC’s DPT Program was actively combatting this issue through endeavors such as the concussion study,” Van Buskirk said. “It reassured me that LVC's program is about more than just classroom teaching and gave me the opportunity to see how involved a formal research project is.”