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Get to Know New Faculty Member Brooke Dexheimer

Brooke DexheimerDr. Brooke Dexheimer joined the department of Occupational Therapy as an assistant professor this past August. She manages the Novel Environments for Reducing Disability & Dysfunction (NERDD) Lab, conducting basic and translational neuroscience research aimed at understanding motor control, motor learning, and movement-related deficits following neurological injury. Dr. Dexheimer completed her PhD in Kinesiology from Pennsylvania State University. Prior to her PhD, she earned a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD) from Washington University in St. Louis and a BA in Movement and Exercise Science from the University of Northern Iowa.

What inspired you to pursue occupational therapy initially?

I’ve always been interested in healthcare and rehabilitation, but I realized a passion for occupational therapy specifically while job shadowing during my undergraduate education. I shadowed many amazing OTs across a variety of practice settings, and I was inspired by how each of these clinicians demonstrated a passion for working with their clients and fostering participation in occupations that were meaningful to them. During my OTD training, I continued to have several excellent OT role models, in both clinical and academic settings, and I credit all of these individuals with fostering my passion for OT and supporting my pursuit of neuroscience research.

How did you become interested in research?

During my undergraduate education, I volunteered my time in a sports performance research lab. It was during this experience that I realized I enjoy the research process, and I saw an opportunity to merge this interest with my passion for OT. During my OTD training, I completed my doctoral capstone in a motor control research lab at Pennsylvania State University, and this experience solidified my interest in the intersection between OT and basic neuroscience research. I decided to remain at this institution to pursue my PhD, and it has been hugely rewarding to know I am contributing to the field of OT through neuroscience and motor control research.  

You have a fun and interesting name for your research lab. Tell us about it.

My research lab is the NERDD Lab: Novel Environments for Reducing Disability and Dysfunction. The overarching goal of the lab is to understand how the brain controls, modifies, and learns movement. We use 2D and 3D virtual reality to study how people perform and/or learn new movements under different sensory conditions and environments. We also use non-invasive brain stimulation to investigate how different parts of the brain help us move and learn, and this research can help us better understand how movement can be disrupted when someone experiences a stroke.

I think the name, “NERDD Lab,” is very fitting, as I’ve always been a science enthusiast and self-proclaimed “nerd.” Parallel to my line of research, I’m also deeply passionate about increasing accessibility to science, and I believe every individual has the right to a basic science education. I hope to foster a sense of curiosity in my students, while also providing them with the tools they need to challenge misinformation, seek out data, and evaluate science and scientific claims they may encounter both inside and outside their occupational therapy careers.

What do you hope to accomplish with your work?

My biggest goal is to unravel the mystery behind how our brain controls and learns movement. I strongly believe that by investigating the neuroscience behind motor control, we can better predict movement deficits after stroke and understand the most effective ways to target these deficits as occupational therapists.
I’m also passionate about training and mentoring the next generation of clinician-scientists. Occupational therapists are specialists in holistic rehabilitation focused on the interaction between cognitive, perceptual, and motor domains, so I believe it’s extremely important that our field continues to prioritize high quality research focused on translating preclinical basic science to clinical practice.

What do you like to do when you aren't in the lab?

Outside of research, my occupations include gardening, woodworking, cooking, and spending time with my husband and our three pets (two dogs and one cat).

Marking 10 magical years, Sensitive Santa is a memorable gift for children with disabilities and their families

VCU Occupational Therapy students and faculty lend their time and expertise to increase accessibility for all during the holiday season.

As part of the Legendary Santa experience at CMoR, several events are offered with a sensory-friendly atmosphere called Sensitive Santa nights. The music and lights are toned down, and there’s a cool-down room available for little ones who may get overstimulated by the holiday hoopla. It’s all done to ensure children with disabilities can still experience the magic of Santa Claus. 

“There's a couple of families we just see again and again,” said Carole Ivey, Ph.D., chair of the Occupational Therapy Department at the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Health Professions, who has been heavily involved with Sensitive Santa nights since their inception. “This is their holiday tradition, and this is a meaningful part of their life that they can't just go to the regular Legendary Santa. They can't go to a typical mall Santa who doesn't know how to interact with them or understand their behaviors, or understand how to talk with them. And [CMoR’s] Legendary Santa is the real Santa, and he knows how to do that.” 

Read more about the Sensitive Santa event on the VCU Exposure site!

Department of Occupational Therapy launches its OTD/PhD Dual Degree Program

The Department of Occupational Therapy launched its Dual Degree Occupational Therapy Doctorate - PhD in Health Related Sciences this year. This program allows students in the occupational therapy doctorate (OTD) program to begin working on credits in the PhD program while in the OTD program, saving them time and money toward their PhD. Dr. Stacey Reynolds, the program director and developer of the dual degree program, states, “This is only one of a small handful of OTD-to-PhD programs in the world and our program is proud to be leading the way in the effort to develop and support well-trained rehabilitation scientists.”

Clair Martin, Stacey Reynolds and Caterina LaRoccaTwo students were accepted into this new program and began working on their PhD this year. Clair Martin says "I applied to the dual degree OTD/PhD program because a career goal of mine is to conduct research to support human-centered and evidence-based interventions for geriatric individuals. This program has provided me opportunities to work with a variety of professions, including the Department of Gerontology, and will guide and support me in achieving this goal." Caterina LaRocca’s journey to the program was a bit different - "While this is not a track I initially envisioned myself on, I am grateful for the opportunity. With the dual degree I hope to research interventions that can assist chronically ill children in self-advocacy, confidence, and ease in disease management." 

The program was part of our department’s strategic plan to increase student interest in research and we are proud that this program will help develop and support a new cadre of occupational therapy researchers who can help grow the evidence-base for our profession.

Clair Martin receives VOTA Award

Clair MartinClair Martin, Class of 2024, received the Virginia Occupational Therapy Association (VOTA) OT Graduate Award at the VOTA Annual Conference on Saturday, September 24, 2022. The OT Graduate award is awarded annually by VOTA to an entry level graduate occupational therapy student based on scholarship, leadership, and humanitarian qualities that OT students bring to their future profession. Clair is in her second year of VCU’s Occupational Therapy Doctorate program. Clair stated “It is an honor to be chosen for VOTA's OT Graduate Student Award. This scholarship will provide financial relief, which will support my endeavors in continuing my education to further the field of occupational therapy.” This year she was accepted into the dual degree Occupational Therapy Doctorate/PhD in Health Sciences program. In this program, she has started coursework for the college’s PhD in Health Sciences while she finishes her occupational therapy doctorate degree.

A Look at the Assistive Technologies Laboratory

The Herbert and Charlotte Meyer Assistive Technologies Laboratory & Quiet Room in the VCU College of Health Professions, was made possible by Dr. John H. and Carlyn Meyer Dalness, in memory of her parents. The lab space features advanced technology which provides occupational therapy students with further training before as they prepare to serve patients in clinical settings after completion of their studies.

Jenna Burns (Class of 2023) receives inaugural Spirit of Sisterhood Scholarship

Fall of 1971 found 7 young women (Cathy Mattsson (Nilson), Maureen Freda (Peterson), Ruth Strauss (Stahl), Donna Lucente (Surber), Pam Flowers (LaCasio), Debby Joyce (McKeon), Megan Mabey (Douglas)) from different geographic, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds converging at VCU, in the middle of an urban campus, at the height of “hippiedom.” None of us could imagine then, that 49 years later, our friendships and treasured college family would still be going strong, all because of our VCU Occupational Therapy (OT) connection. Our lives have been individually and collectively enriched by these lifelong friendships that started so simply. Our memories are so fond of those early formative years spent together, we have been inspired to offer a small scholarship of $1,000 to a current VCU OT student.  We fervently hope that the student who is selected finds the professional pride, success, passion, and satisfaction we all have, as well as lasting friendships.  

picture of OT sisterhood scholarship

Class of 2021: Cara Harman wants to help patients regain their lives

Cara Harman realized at a young age how happy she felt when she was helping someone else. At 6 years old, she wanted to help her parents’ close friends, whose baby was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.

Picture of Cara Harman for featured news

“I drew them cards, helped my mom make dinners and baked goods for them and helped raise money towards the Muscular Dystrophy Association,” said Harman, who will graduate next month from the VCU Occupational Therapy Doctorate Program in the College of Health Professions.  “I remember even donating my tooth fairy money to the MDA.”


Audrey Kane Receives Grant for "Unity at the Table"

Congratulations to Audrey Kane, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy for being awarded a grant by the 2020-2021 VCU Service-Learning Project Small Grants Program for her project "Unity at the Table".  The award will help Audrey promote her students' learning in current and future iterations of her OCCT 717:Level I Psychosocial Fieldwork in Occupational Therapy service-learning class, and enhance community-engaged learning opportunities for VCU students. 

Occupational Therapy Faculty Members Receive Idea Grant


Stacey Reynolds imageVirginia ChuTwo OT faculty members recently were awarded an Idea Grant by the Barth Syndrome Foundations.  Dr. Stacey Reynolds (PI) and Dr. Virginia Chu (Co-I) were awarded a grant for their project "What is Barth Tired?: A mixed methods approach to qualifying and quantifying fatigue in males with Barth syndrome."