OT students attend statewide conference


SUMMARY: JMU's occupational therapy students presented research at the recent VOTA conference.

By: Caroline Whitlow
Creative Services Student Writer

PHOTO: JMU students present at conference

On October 13-15, second year occupational therapy students participated in the Virginia Occupational Therapy Association conference in Portsmouth, VA.  JMU’s program had an impressive presence at the conference as Dukes networked, presented research and even claimed both the prestigious VOTA Scholarship and the Educator of the Year award.

“As a program director, it was such an honor,” said Twylla Kirchen.  “The students are the very best part of working here, and it is a privilege to teach and showcase them.”

Each of the 23 graduate students who attended presented research over seven poster presentations and three lectures alongside OT faculty.  Their work spanned diverse topics, and some of the lectures drew so much attention that auditoriums were standing room only.

Zachary Nelson and Cameron Williams gave a presentation on their research about creating a harmonious home for caregivers of individuals with dementia.  Around 70 people filled the 50 person space, and Nelson and Williams were inspired by the enthusiasm of attendees.

“We’d been preparing for the presentation since June, and it went very well,” said Nelson.  “We structured it so that it was interactive, and we heard some deep and personal stories.  People brought up amazing points that we wouldn’t have even thought of.”

Williams found the experience empowering as she overcame stage fright to share her knowledge and work. She attributes much of her success to the support of her peers and professors.  “I get so nervous with presentations.  I sweat and my heart races, so getting in front of everyone terrified me,” said Williams.  “But having Zachary, Dr. Kirchen and three of our other professors there made it comfortable.  It calmed me down and improved my speaking ability to have that support.  I learned that I am stronger than I think.”

Students who gave poster presentations also received positive attention.  Lisa Umbel and Melissa Garner shared their research on using robotic companion cats to alleviate the psychological distress of dementia and associated caregiver burden.  They brought one of the automated cats along, inspiring attendees to try implementing this resource into their own communities.

PHOTO: JMU students and faculty at conference

“I was most nervous about the questions that people would ask regarding our study. During the poster presentation though, I felt very confident in answering all of the questions. People had genuine interest in learning more about what we were doing,” said Umbel.

Alongside experience giving professional presentations, students gained valuable connections through networking.  “We get excited because we usually stay in our JMU bubble.  When we get out in the community and state, others take interest in our work. Our students find it uplifting and motivational,” said Kirchen.

Each year, VOTA selects one student to receive their statewide scholarship.  Senior Christie Brinkley, who designed the logo for the conference, earned the prestigious award.

“It’s a scholarship for students who demonstrate exceptional leadership, service and academics.  Christie has been a shining star since she entered our program and has a list of accomplishments so long that I don’t know where to begin,” said Kirchen.

Among these accomplishments are designing a self-care app for caregivers and publication in the journal OT Practice for her work with pediatric oncology “She’s just one of those students that lifts you up,” said Kirchen.  “But I would say almost every student we have is exceptional. In Christie’s class, nearly half of the students published their research.”

Despite immense success, the graduate students realized that they owed many of their accolades to the knowledge and passion of faculty members.  They nominated their program director for VOTA Educator of the Year, and Kirchen received this statewide honor at the conference. 

“Our professors work so incredibly hard, and a lot of the time they don’t get the recognition they deserve,” said Nelson.  “It was wonderful to see Dr. Kirchen standing up on stage and getting the praise that she deserves.”

Two student groups applied and were selected to present their research at this year’s national conference in Salt Lake City, UT.  No matter where they go, JMU OT students have endless support and appreciation for one another.    

“My favorite part of this experience was presenting alongside my classmates,” said Umbel.  “Everyone in my cohort was selected to present at our state conference!  I am so proud to be in the JMU occupational therapy program!” 

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Published: Friday, November 3, 2017

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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