Dr. Kerri Morgan is an Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy and Neurology at Washington University in St. Louis and a certified Assistive Technology Professional (ATP). In addition, Kerri is an accomplished Paralympic and World Champion athlete. Kerri received her Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Texas Christian University and her MS degree in occupational therapy from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She has served as an intern at the White House in the Presidential Personnel Office, and prior to joining the Program in Occupational Therapy at Washington University in St. Louis, Kerri worked in the Occupational Therapy Department at the Devonshire Hospital in London, England. She later enrolled in the Program in Movement Science at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis where she was awarded her PhD. Kerri completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alabama-Birmingham before accepting her current position. In our interview, Kerri shares more about her life and research.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:27)
When she’s not doing science, Kerri loves spending time with family, including her twin boys. In addition, Kerri enjoys playing wheelchair rugby and racing. She finds that having other activities gives balance to her life and in turn makes her a better researcher.
The Scientific Side (4:22)
Through her research, Kerri is working to understand how to better support people with disabilities in the community. Studies in her lab investigate the needs of people with disabilities, their goals, available community interventions and programs, what is working, and how communities can ensure that people are able to do the things that they would like to do.
A Dose of Motivation (5:08)
One key motivator for Kerri is that she has lived with a disability for most of her life, so she has a personal understanding of many of the challenges faced by the populations she studies. Kerri has had goals, including physical fitness goals, and it has been difficult to find the resources necessary to meet these goals. She would like to contribute to making it easier for people with disabilities to fully participate in their communities.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (7:37)
Growing up with a disability, Kerri spent a lot of time undergoing different kinds of therapy. However, it wasn’t until she was older that she really started to appreciate the impact that therapy had on her life. When she started college, she was torn between whether to pursue business or psychology. Most of her family members had business backgrounds, but Kerri realized that business wasn’t the right fit for her. She wanted to pursue a career where she could help people, so she majored in psychology. As she considered different career paths, Kerri reflected that she wanted a profession where she could really give back to the community. She realized that she had valuable experiences and perspectives she could share as a occupational therapist, so she decided to get a master’s degree in occupational therapy. During her master’s degree program, Kerri worked with Dr. David Gray and began to appreciate the value of research and the need for more research in their field. After graduating and working in a research lab for about 10 years, Kerri made the decision to get her PhD in movement science to develop her own independent research program.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (17:38)
There are many barriers to engaging people with disabilities, including those related to finances, transportation, and insufficient support. When designing and delivering interventions, Kerri and her team have to think about how to overcome a variety of different barriers, not only for their research studies, but to ensure that these interventions are feasible for people to continue to participate in over time in their own communities. For example, coaching people in how to use the public transportation available in their communities may help them participate in a particular exercise intervention for a research study, but it may also help them to continue to exercise after the study is over.
A Shining Success! (20:49)
A major success for Kerri involved working with an engineer in the Program in Physical Therapy to develop a wheelchair treadmill to help train people in manual wheelchairs in how to push their wheelchairs in ways that put less strain on their upper extremities. Through this project, they also discovered that the device they developed could be a good exercise device for manual wheelchair users. They have published a few papers on the device, and it has been exciting to see how their work seemed to get other people thinking about developing new technologies for people with disabilities. Another success in Kerri’s lab has been their continued dedication to involving people with disabilities in every project in the lab. Whether it is insights from members of their research staff, feedback from their advisory board, or qualitative data from participants, they make sure to always incorporate perspectives from people with disabilities in their work.
Book Recommendations (25:14)
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington
Most Treasured Travel (26:32)
Kerri had an opportunity to travel to Denmark and Norway while working in Dr. David Gray’s lab. It was exciting to see that the people there had an immense appreciation of the work Kerri and her colleagues were doing, and there was a strong desire to implement programs and interventions in Denmark and Norway. This was really motivating. During the trip, Kerri enjoyed exploring the towns and visiting some of the great museums and galleries there. As an athlete, Kerri had the opportunity to go to Christchurch, New Zealand to compete in the IPC Athletics World Championships. Christchurch was one of the most beautiful places Kerri has ever visited, and the people there were so supportive of hosting the Paralympics in their community. It was also memorable because she performed particularly well on the racetrack!
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (29:39)
One of the great things about traveling to attend scientific conferences is that you get a chance to get to know other people in your field in the down time after presentations are over for the day. This is something that Kerri is really missing right now since many conferences have switched to a virtual format during the pandemic. In her own lab, Kerri and her group have been having discussions about books they’ve all read and documentaries they’ve all watched. These conversations are great because they help them all keep learning, growing, and getting new perspectives that may inform their work.
Advice For Us All (34:07)
In research, it is essential to be patient. You aren’t going to be able to solve big problems overnight. Also, barriers and setbacks are inevitable in science. You’re not going to get every grant or have every paper accepted, but this is normal. Remember when you get constructive feedback that everyone is trying to help you make your work better in order to help people, and their feedback can make you a better researcher.
In her research and clinical work, Kerri is generating new knowledge to help guide interventions to improve the participation of people with lower limb mobility impairments. Kerri’s research focuses on answering important questions in the areas of disability, participation, physical activity, and assistive technology. She has worked with people with spinal cord injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, post-polio syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other conditions. Through her research, she has helped develop and test standardized measures to assess participation as well as factors that facilitate or serve as barriers to participation. Kerri also served an important role in creating a community-based program that provides health, wellness, and assistive technology services for people with disabilities. In addition, she was involved in the development of a motor-driven roller system (WheelMill System) that can be used for wheelchair training and exercise for people who use manual wheelchairs. Beyond her work, Kerri is an avid wheelchair athlete, and she has competed internationally in wheelchair rugby, sprint racing, and middle-distance racing. In her free time, she also enjoys hanging out with her family and having fun with her two-and-a-half-year-old twin boys.