MUSC professor placed on Fulbright Specialist roster

Congress recently announced its 21st Century Cures initiative to accelerate the pace of cures and medical breakthroughs in the US. The goal is to promote an environment through which innovation is fostered among unlikely partners in government, academe and industry. It is now beginning to take hold. The American Medical Association has provided input on areas that, from their professional perch, need reform. Other groups are weighing in to provide vital contributions to future groundbreaking research and global health threats.

Healthcare professionals like Patricia Coker-Bolt, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA bring a hands-on, constructive perspective to informing global health care research given her background and experience. Coker-Bolt is an Associate Professor in the Division of Occupational Therapy at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) who has been traveling to Africa on medical missions work for more than seven years. Coker-Bolt received a faculty pilot grant in 2014 from the MUSC Center for Global Health to conduct research on constraint induced movement therapy in children in Ethiopia—this led to publications in prestigious international journals and potential long-term partnerships.

After some encouragement and nudging from Emily Moore, EdD, a highly regarded Professor and recently retired Associate Dean in the College of Health Professions, Coker-Bolt applied to the competitive Fulbright Specialist program. Coker-Bolt also received support pursuing the Fulbright from The Center for Global Health.

The Fulbright Specialist program, sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at The Department of State provides research professionals with short-term training oriented exchange opportunities in more than 155 countries.

Fulbright Specialists are chosen based on academic merit and leadership potential to engage in projects on environmental issues, food security, public health, education and other challenges that require innovation, creativity and knowledge that transcend all borders, according to the Fulbright website.

Coker-Bolt recently received placement on the prestigious Fulbright Specialist roster—testament of her growing stature in the field of physical and occupational therapy. She will be in esteemed company as a Fulbright Alum. Among the past Fulbright recipients are 53 Nobel Prize awardees, 39 MacArthur Fellows and 82 Pulitzer Prize winners. With the knowledge gained from completing the Fulbright, Coker-Bolt will continue to develop relationships with international partners to offer sustainable programs in low resource settings.

“I realized pursuing the Fulbright position could work as a mechanism to collaborate and work with other institutions on their occupational therapy education programs or therapy related issues,” said Coker-Bolt.  “While I’ve done work and established relationships in Ethiopia and Uganda, it is exciting to potentially work in another country, like Haiti or Madagascar, where they are starting their first ever occupational therapy programs.”

Along with her teaching position at MUSC and countless contributions to her immediate community, Coker-Bolt understands that going it alone to produce efficacious treatments is not only infeasible but also unrealistic. She strongly believes to have a meaningful impact on the lives of the marginalized, she must harness the collective expertise of her colleagues.

“I met some colleagues in Ethiopia at Addis Ababa University who are in the process of getting proper approvals to develop a physical therapy curriculum,” said Coker-Bolt. “It made sense that colleagues in Ethiopia and the US work together in creating a sustainable training program for students and future healthcare professionals in East Africa.”

The need for occupational and physical therapists is dire in countries like Ethiopia where road traffic-related injury risks remain high. The train forward model is what Coker-Bolt plans to implement in combatting injury and disease in low resource areas—the Fulbright Specialist program will buttress her skills in doing so. Seeing the need for sustainable programs effectively changed the way Coker-Bolt teaches her own students, especially those she mentors on trips abroad. 

“We talk a lot about diversity and the underserved in low income populations. These medical missions trips show students what it is like to work in a country with very limited resources and people of different cultures, backgrounds and beliefs—you cannot teach that in a lecture, “ said Coker-Bolt.

The importance of collaboration and collective thought is more important than ever as global citizens face challenges that require diverse expertise and backgrounds in developing innovative, appropriate solutions. Coker-Bolt teaches her students that the power is in the collective and change cannot be effected in a vacuum.  

“It is great to see the light come on in students’ eyes when they realize that we are very similar to people in other countries, be they partners or patients, and  even though we may have different beliefs and cultures we can still work together successfully to solve global health’s most pressing issues,” said Coker-Bolt.