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Arnold School of Public Health

EXSC doctoral graduate lands postdoctoral research fellowship at Emory University

August 26, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, 

The oldest of Denise Peters’ two daughters was just three months old when the August graduate began her doctoral studies at the University of South Carolina. Now ages two and five, her children have grown up as Peters’ career path has evolved. “Earning my PhD while balancing time raising kids is one of my biggest achievements,” she says.

The child of two academics (her father was a clinical psychologist/college professor and her mother was an instructor of computer science at a local university), Peters took steps to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology after she graduated from the University of Alabama-Birmingham with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “Both of my parents were always very supportive of any steps I took to further my education,” she says.

After two years in the clinical-community psychology program at the University of South Carolina, the former collegiate soccer player decided to switch career paths and purse a Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT) at the Arnold School. “The faculty members were very welcoming, and I liked the small class size that it offered compared to other DPT programs,” Peters says.

After graduating in 2007, she worked in a variety of clinical settings treating patients with neurological, orthopedic, post-surgical and general medical conditions. Peters returned to the Arnold School in 2010 to pursue a PhD in Exercise Science with an emphasis in Rehabilitation Sciences for a couple reasons. She had a great graduate school experience with her DPT degree, and she wanted to work with Associate Professor Stacy Fritz.

“She is an amazing teacher, researcher and role model, and I felt that I could learn how to be a well-rounded academician by working with her,” Peters says of Fritz. “She does a great job of mentoring while also letting you find out what works best for you.”

Assistant Professor Jill Stewart offered additional research inspiration for Peters. “Conversations with her continue to fuel my interest in neuroplasticity and have given me more confidence in my own knowledge base and interpretation of study results,” she says.

Peters’ interests aligned well with her mentors, and she thrived as a researcher under their guidance. “I am interested in understanding the neural mechanisms that underlie motor function/impairment and treatment-induced recovery, as well as how to apply this knowledge to improve development and targeting of therapeutic interventions,” she explains. “I also want to play an active role in the translation of research into clinical physical therapy practice.” 

With 12 publications, Peters has built a name for herself as a researcher and a foundation for a career path as an academician. “Long-term, I would like to obtain a faculty position in an accredited DPT program, with my research focused on optimizing motor recovery in individuals with neurological insult, such as stroke and spinal cord injury,” she says. “Teaching and mentoring students is also very important to me and something that I really enjoy.”

The next stop on her path will be a postdoctoral research fellowship at Emory University. “I will be working on a research project investigating a novel therapeutic technique for improving mobility in individuals with chronic incomplete spinal cord injury,” she says.

Given what she has learned about balancing her career with her family, Peters knows how to make it work. “There is no ‘ideal time’ to start the process, or you might put it off indefinitely,” she says. “Your program of study is growing as you grow so be an active part of the process—and, of course, be mindful of staying balanced in your life.”


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