Two-Time Scholarship Recipient Bernadette Gillick, PT, MS, Studies Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy to Help Patients Regain Motor Skills

When Bernadette Gillick, PT, MS, was in high school, one of her major assignments was to job-shadow five different occupations. The final job she chose to observe was a physical therapist. Science and math were always her favorite subjects in school, and Gillick knew that she wanted to work in a profession where she could help other people, so physical therapy seemed like an appealing career path.

Gillick remembers the physical therapist telling her something important that day: “If you want to have a happy life, work in healthcare and have the honor of working with people in need, you should become a physical therapist.” Those words stayed with her. Not only has she worked as a clinician for over 17 years and as an instructor at a number of universities, but she has earned an Advanced Masters Degree in Neurologic Physical Therapy and is now making her mark in physical therapy research and pursuing a PhD in Rehabilitation Science at the University of Minnesota.

Gillick received a Promotion of Doctoral Studies (PODS) II Scholarship in 2009 and another in 2010. Her research as a PhD student is focused on pediatric neuroplasticity, meaning how the brain changes as it grows, how it is affected after injury, and how those changes affect a child’s development.

Her experiences as a clinician have had a major influence on her decision to pursue pediatric physical therapy. Although she primarily worked with adult patients when she worked in Chicago, Illinois, and managed a hospital in Anchorage, Alaska, some native children in Alaska living with cerebral palsy and spina bifida needed treatment, so she switched gears and began working with children—and loved it. After she moved from Alaska to Seattle, Washington, she began working as a pediatric physical therapist and an Anatomy and Physiology instructor at Seattle University.

In addition to working with children in Alaska and Washington, Gillick also worked as a clinical instructor for Marquette University and Creighton University students at a hospital and an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. As an instructor for the Institute of Latin American Concern (ILAC) at Creighton University in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, she supervised graduating physical therapy students participating in the 4-week clinical immersion program.

Throughout her teaching career, Gillick taught classes of anywhere from 20 to 200 students for various physical therapy and biology departments, which later helped her adjust back to life as a student in the classroom. “Keeping my foot in the academic door made it very easy for me to step back into academics as a student again because I had already been in that environment. I had never really left it, so it was an easier transition than I had anticipated.”

Gillick gains hands-on experience in the Brain Plasticity Laboratory at the University of Minnesota working with other PhD students and two professors. The focus of the lab is to measure changes in brain function.  Gillick’s thesis, “Pediatric Hemiparesis: Synergistic Treatment using rTMS and CIMT,” measures gross motor outcomes in children before and after going through constraint-induced movement therapy (CIMT). This method encourages the use of the affected side by restraining the unaffected side. The study also incorporates use of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and its effect on motor learning tasks. The rTMS uses a magnet to create an electric current to measure or influence electrophysiologic outcomes. Along with behavioral components, the two interventions of CIMT and TMS allow the researchers to detect any changes in the brain and observe any changes in the patient’s behavior.

On a typical day, Gillick will conduct a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on the brain of a child who has had a stroke, and then transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) have approved that children between the ages of 8 and 16 be used for this phase of the lab’s clinical trial. The lab has recruited patients through many means, including an online, nationwide listserv and the study Web site. Although there has been a significant response, Gillick is finding that several parents are hesitant to allow their children to participate at first.

“I’ve literally driven out to the middle of Minnesota to talk to families and explain who I am and why they should let their children, who have had a stroke, come to the lab and participate in this research. I explain that there’s a low risk of inducing a seizure with the treatments, but that the research might actually be able to make a difference in their child’s hand function.”

Along with her advisor at the University of Minnesota, James R. Carey, PT, PhD, Gillick co-authored a $1.1 million NIH Challenge Grant.  The grant funds this pediatric study which collaborates with Seattle Children’s Hospital, where Gillick holds a clinical position.

Gillick has been a member of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) throughout her whole career, and actually first became involved with the Foundation as a donor. “I donated to the Foundation before I became a PhD student. I’m very honored to have received these scholarships. You can bet that after I’ve earned my PhD, I’ll be going back and donating to the Foundation.”

She has made an impact on the profession as a clinician, an instructor and now a researcher. Gillick has been invited to speak on her research in four different cities in just this past year and always remembers to recognize the Foundation for helping her get her start in research. “The final slide of my presentation says ‘supported in part by the Foundation for Physical Therapy.’ If I hadn’t received the PODS II scholarships, I probably would’ve either had to quit my research projects for lack of funding, or I would’ve (gone) part-time, and this probably would’ve gone on for years. Foundation-funding has allowed me to fully commit to my research and progress in a timely manner.  I am very grateful to the Foundation.”


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