Q & A with our outstanding alumni

Q & A with our outstanding alumni

Photos by Kristen Bartlett Grace.

Alumni less than 10 years since graduation:
Meryl Alappattu
April Johnson
Robert Montz
Teresa Pitts
Meghan Schuck
Marieke Van Puymbroeck

Alumni more than 10 years since graduation:
Ryan Branski
Jan Olsen
Marsha Powers
Samuel Sears


Meryl Alappattu, D.P.T.
Doctor of Physical Therapy ’08 

After receiving her physical therapy degree, Alappattu completed a clinical residency in oncology rehabilitation. Her interest in musculoskeletal pain conditions commonly treated by physical therapists led her to pursue a doctoral degree and she is currently a student in the college’s Ph.D. in rehabilitation science program. She studies the factors influencing pain sensitivity in individuals with chronic pain, and in particular, females with pelvic pain. She has received funding from the Foundation for Physical Therapy, the American Physical Therapy Association Section on Women’s Health, and she is a current trainee of the National Institutes of Health Interdisciplinary Training in Rehabilitation and Neuromuscular Plasticity Grant. 

My favorite UF memory: The relationships I formed with people during my time in the physical therapy program and more recently, in the rehabilitation science program.  These are people who will be lifelong friends and I’ve had some of the best times of my life with them.

Best lesson learned at UF: Take advantage of the opportunities you have in front of you and put yourself out there to new people and experiences.

UF faculty member who influenced me the most: My Ph.D. mentor Dr. Mark Bishop. He always reminds me to keep my eye on the prize (dissertation and graduation) but also encourages me to look beyond the expected and obvious and to do something meaningful with my career and life. It’s something that I always keep in the back of my mind and I know it will help drive my future career path.

People would be surprised to know: I usually carry around a small bottle of crushed red pepper in my bag — I put it on everything. If they ever produce fun-size bottles of Sriracha, I will probably do the same!

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April Johnson, D.V.M., Ph.D., M.P.H.
Master’s in public health (epidemiology) ’06

Johnson is an assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, where she is working to improve veterinary public health education through curriculum development and establishment of a concurrent M.P.H. program for veterinary students. After finishing a concurrent Ph.D./M.P.H. degree at UF in veterinary microbiology and epidemiology, she completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship as an epidemic intelligence service officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention working in the influenza division with avian and seasonal influenza. Her current research interests include the epidemiology of zoonotic diseases, infectious diseases of wildlife and international public health. Some of her recent studies have focused on Q-fever in sheep and goats in Indiana, and Japanese encephalitis virus in pigs in the mountain districts of Nepal.

My favorite UF memory: I loved that you could actually see alligators while walking between buildings on campus.       

Best lesson learned at UF: Always wear blue and orange on game day even if you aren’t going to the game.

UF faculty member who influenced me the most:  Dr. Nabih Asal was my mentor during the M.P.H. program as well as professor for several courses. As a non-traditional student in a concurrent degree program, he really helped things go smoothly and always took an interest, even after I finished the program. He was a great example of a mentor, which I hope to emulate in my current position. 

People would be surprised to know: I am an aspiring silversmith. 

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Major Robert Montz, M.H.S., OTR/L, CHT, CSCS
Master’s in occupational therapy ’06

Montz is an officer in the U.S. Army and chief of the Occupational Therapy Clinic at Fort Drum, NY. His interest is in upper extremity rehabilitation and human performance and he is currently working on his clinical doctorate. His UF capstone project was a business plan to justify occupational therapy with the elite Army Rangers. This project became a reality when he became the first ever Ranger qualified occupational therapist. He has presented nationally and internationally on the topics of human performance and mental toughness within the military. He has multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

My favorite UF memory: My favorite UF memory was walking the stage during commencement. I was unable to attend my bachelor’s degree graduation because I was stationed in Germany. At graduation in 2006, my wife, two kids and my parents were able to attend. Without all their support and encouragement, that special day would not have been possible.

Best lesson learned at UF: Communication. As OTs, one of the life skill classes we often give is communication, but it is amazing how sometimes we forget to practice what we preach. This was reinforced during my capstone project. Effective communication, especially nowadays, can be as easy as a quick email, text or telephone call. Whichever medium you choose, use effectively and often.

UF faculty member who influenced me the most: Emily Pugh. As our program director, she kept me focused, but at the same time made certain that I was looking at the entire picture. She ensured my success in the master’s program. She was even successful at influencing me to becoming a true Gator fan when she first attempted to put a Gator sticker on my ID badge at the AOTA Conference in San Diego.

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Teresa Pitts, Ph.D., CCC/SLP
Doctorate in communication sciences and disorders ’10  

Pitts is a National Institutes of Health, NIDCD, T-32 post-doctoral fellow though the departments of neurology and physiological sciences at the University of Florida. As a doctoral student she studied airway protection in patients with Parkinson’s disease and her research brought to light the co-existence of disordered swallow and cough in Parkinson’s disease which puts these patients at risk for significant respiratory complications. Her post-doctoral training now consists of furthering our understanding of the link between cough and swallow. She is also working to develop a model of disease for testing novel therapies to help extend the quality of life of people living with neuromuscular diseases. 

My favorite UF memory: The day of my defense, my mentor, Dr. Christine Sapienza, shook my hand and said, “Congratulations Dr Pitts.”  It is a moment I hope I never forget.

Best lesson learned at UF: Life is full of challenges, but they are what make it all very interesting.

UF faculty member who influenced me the most: Dr. Sapienza was the faculty member who influenced me the most because she continually challenged me to “figure things out.”  Once a person believes that they can and will figure things out, all problems are just a matter of time.

People would be surprised to know: I am a serial-hobbyist; right now it is gardening and painting.

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Meghan Schuck, M.P.H.
Master’s in public health (environmental and global health) ’06

Schuck is an environmental scientist with Geosyntec Consultants in Chicago. While a student at PHHP, she provided a review of environmental risk assessments for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection through the Center for Environmental Health and Toxicology and conducted an environmental health needs assessment for communities in the Lake Apopka area. As an environmental consultant, she has been the technical lead and primary author on four multi-million dollar ecological and human health assessments conducted under the USEPA Superfund program. She has been involved in numerous state-led site investigations involving a wide range of chemicals, including heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and pesticides. Her consulting practice also includes complex litigation cases related to environmental exposures.  She has provided technical support for toxic tort litigation, cancer cluster investigations and environmental forensic investigations.

My favorite UF memory: I have so many, but there is nothing like the feeling of walking into a packed football stadium! Every time I return as an alumna, game day memories of cheering with friends come rushing back to me!

Best lesson learned at UF: You never know when you’re going to meet a life-long friend!

UF faculty member who influenced me the most: While in the M.P.H. program I was able to work with the late Dr. Natalie Freeman on a community-based public health assessment.  Her passion for creating safe environments for everyone, especially for children, was truly inspirational.

People would be surprised to know: I recently took up painting as a hobby and have found it to be a great creative outlet!

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Marieke Van Puymbroeck, Ph.D., CTRS
Doctorate in rehabilitation science ’04

Van Puymbroeck is an associate professor of recreation therapy at Indiana University’s School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, and has published 37 research articles. She studies the therapeutic use of complementary and alternative medicine, with a particular emphasis on yoga, to improve function, well-being, and community participation for individuals with chronic disease and disability. She is the president of the Recreation Therapists of Indiana, and has received the Trustees Teaching Award from Indiana University’s School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, and the Distinguished Scholar Award from the American Therapeutic Recreation Association.

My favorite UF memory: I had an amazing cohort during my Ph.D. program in Rehabilitation Sciences! We had such great times working and playing together. We would challenge and support each other. It was an ideal way to learn. I was also fortunate to be able to go on a trip to Puerto Rico to collect data and have a writing retreat — it was an amazing experience!

Best lesson learned at UF: A UF faculty member once said that his best research ideas were “margarita laced.” This is one of my favorite quotes — and ideas!

UF faculty member who influenced me the most: There were many, but the three most influential were Dr. Mary Ellen Young, Dr. Maude Rittman and Dr. Jay Rosenbek. Dr. Young was my primary mentor and such a caring and supportive chair. She made a complex process seem manageable! Dr. Rittman was a great research mentor, and provided me such amazing opportunities (see data collection trip above!). Finally, Dr. Rosenbek introduced to my cohort the WHO’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. This is a framework that I continue to use and promote. Dr. Rosenbek also had such an interesting style and great way to engage students, which I always appreciated.

People would be surprised to know: Since graduation from UF, I’ve ridden a bicycle across the width of Iowa twice.

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Ryan Branski, Ph.D.
Master’s in communication sciences and disorders ’98

Branski is an assistant professor and associate director of the NYU Voice Center in the New York University School of Medicine department of otolaryngology. He runs a busy clinical practice, an NIH-funded research laboratory, and is an active educator in multiple departments across NYU. He recently served as an elected member of the Steering Committee and chair of the Research Subcommittee of the Voice and Voice Disorders Division of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). He is the recipient of ASHA’s Award for Early Career Contributions in Research.

My favorite UF memory: That’s a tough question. I was raised in Gainesville and both of my parents went to graduate school at UF so I have decades of memories. I grew up playing pick-up football games on the Astroturf at Florida Field, but bringing my son to The Swamp for the first time was amazing.

Best lesson learned at UF: Dr. Christine Sapienza was always the first one in the lab in the morning. She got more work done before 8 a.m. than most got done all day. She’d also work through lunch, sitting at her desk with a brown bag so she could leave at a reasonable hour to spend time with her kids. As a student, I thought she was crazy, but now that I’m a father, I get it.

UF faculty member who influenced me the most: Dr. Sapienza took me into her lab as a struggling undergraduate and kept me around through graduate school. She taught me so much and completely altered the trajectory of my professional life. I owe her big time.

People would be surprised to know: I have Albert tattooed on my shoulder.

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2012 PHHP Alumna of the Year
Jan Z. Olsen, OTR
Bachelor’s in occupational therapy ’62

Olsen is the founder and developer of the Handwriting Without Tears program, an award winning curriculum for children of all abilities. In 2003, she co-created Get Set for School, a developmentally based pre-K program that continues to expand. Each year Olsen and a team of occupational therapists present over 500 training workshops for teachers, occupational therapists and parents. For her contributions to the profession and leadership in child education, she was recognized as the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ 2012 Alumna of the Year at the college’s spring convocation ceremony on May 4.

My favorite UF memory: Being an R.A. I was a junior transfer student working at Longs Cafeteria. The Dean of Women ate there and helped me get the job.  We R.A.s showed movies, held fire drills, sent students to the infirmary and locked the dorm at night. My fellow R.A., Jo Ann Kingdon, is still a best friend after all these years.  

Best lesson learned at UF: Think what you can do! We were respected and encouraged to make contributions even as students and new therapists.  

UF faculty member who influenced me the most: Alice Jantzen (founding UF chair of occupational therapy) looked out for me. I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan when I decided to be an OT.  She told me what courses to take at Michigan so that I could transfer and graduate on schedule. There was very little mentoring, but she conveyed a sense of expectation and confidence.

People would be surprised to know: Janet Reno (former U.S. Attorney General) and I were on the debate team together at Coral Gables High School. I live near D.C. and ran into her during the Clinton years. She remembered me and couldn’t have been nicer.

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Marsha Powers, M.B.A.
Master’s in business administration (hospital administration) ’79

Powers is senior vice president of operations for Tenet Healthcare Corporation’s Florida region. She is responsible for directing the strategy and operations for 10 acute care hospitals and 21 outpatient centers in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. She is also responsible for the operations of Tenet Florida Physician Services. Tenet’s Florida hospitals have 3,483 beds, net revenue of $1.8 billion, 10,000 employees and an annual payroll in the state of more than $670 million. She has nearly three decades of experience, including operational responsibility for large and diverse hospital networks. She served as a division president of Triad Hospitals, Inc., where she oversaw the operations of 11 hospitals, two ambulatory surgery centers and a physician management organization in seven states. She also helped develop two new hospitals and three replacement hospitals, and completed four major hospital expansions.

My favorite UF memory: Our class was very small and close. We loved celebrating each others’ successes. I made so many life-long friends that I cherish. I also met my husband while attending UF.

Best lesson learned at UF: Always make time to cheer on the Gators! Family and friends always come first.

Faculty member who influenced me the most: My professors were all fantastic, but the two that provided the most support, encouragement and mentoring were Dr. Ira Horowitz and Dr. Ralph Swain. They were so patient!

People would be surprised to know: Nothing I do would surprise anyone!

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Samuel Sears, Ph.D.
Doctorate in clinical psychology ’95

Sears is a professor in the departments of psychology and cardiovascular sciences at East Carolina University. He also serves as the director of the health psychology program. He is a nationally recognized expert in the psychological care and quality of life outcomes of patients with implantable cardioverter defibrillators, or ICDs, and has published over 100 research articles on the psychological aspects of cardiology. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from UF and served on the faculty of the UF department of clinical and health psychology for 12 years. His co-authored ICD-specific quality of life measure and shock anxiety measure are the most widely used scales in the field.  

My favorite UF memory: Given my many years at UF, I have so many great memories.  An easy one to remember is certainly celebrating on University Avenue after the basketball championships with Duane Dede and my brother-in-law, Chuck. The championships then were unexpected and the Gator teams played so well as a team and not as individuals. 

UF faculty member who influenced me the most: Dr. Hugh Davis called me in the spring of my senior year at UF to tell me that I was admitted to the clinical and health psychology program. The call changed my life. During the graduate program, Dr. Davis was a great clinical mentor who taught me broad and general clinical skills. He was a natural at synthesizing clinical process and content to develop young psychologists.

People would be surprised to know: After my first UF football game in 1976 (Florida vs. Mississippi State), I decided I wanted to go to UF. I never really fully considered going anywhere else for undergraduate or graduate work. In total, I was involved as a student or a faculty member from 1986-2007 (21 years). A good deal of my life was prompted because of a football game that I attended when I was eight years old.