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Khalilah Johnson, an occupational science PhD candidate, spoke to the Department of Allied Health Sciences about diversity in research as she prepares to graduate.

Khalilah Robinson Johnson, an occupational science PhD candidate, plans to graduate in summer 2016 after studying the institutionalization and deinstitutionalization of adults with intellectual disabilities. Johnson will celebrate two things as she graduates, including the successful completion of her research and being the first African-American to receive her doctorate in occupational science from UNC-Chapel Hill. Johnson is a PhD candidate within the Division of Occupational Therapy and Occupational Science housed in the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Allied Health Sciences.

We sat down with Johnson to learn more about her educational experiences and motivation to pursue occupational science.

What is your educational background?

I earned a dual Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Occupational Science from The Women’s College of Brenau University, finishing in 2006. I had a really good experience at Brenau and place immense value on single-sex education. Attending a women’s college gave me the opportunity to tap into leadership experiences, develop my organizational skills, as well as expand my social networking. During my time at Brenau, I joined a number of organizations.  I joined a sorority (Delta Sigma Theta) and even served as student body president. I can’t say that is something I would have done had I gone to a large institution right out of high school.

Why did you apply to study occupational science in the UNC School of Medicine?

I was encouraged by a mentor, Dr. Barb Schell, to apply to UNC.  I really enjoyed the thesis process while I was in grad school. It helped me see the value of research on how it directly impacted my practice as an occupational therapist. I shared with her that I wanted to have the same experiences that I had while in occupational therapy school in a doctoral program. I was looking for a program with a rich history of strong scholarship, and a program with a sense of community. It was important that I applied to a program where I had good support and good mentorship. So, I put all of my eggs in one basket, and it worked out.

What is your dissertation topic?

My dissertation is an institutional ethnographic study with adults with intellectual
disabilities and staff members of a developmental center. The decision to pursue adult ID as a research topic stemmed from my experiences as an occupational therapist working in developmental centers; in particular, I was really touched by the limitations and restrictions place on what I was able to do in these centers, as well as seeing that the adults who I was serving didn’t have real opportunity to incorporate activities that were meaningful to them in their everyday life. I learned that what I was experiencing was a consequence of the regulations these centers had to abide by.

Why do you think diversity is important to occupational science?

Diversity is important for the profession, but it’s important for science too. For me, diversity is about pluralism; we can only broaden the way we think and view the world if we have multiple voices from multiple walks of life. It’s important to see things from different perspectives.

How do you feel about being the first African-American PhD student in occupational science?

It is my hope that me being black exposes occupational science to more black occupational therapists. In our department, race is not something I have to think about necessarily, where in the basic sciences, advancing the black intellectual discourse is more prominent. The Division of Occupational Therapy and Occupational Science is great, the exposure of minority students is great, but it’s not something that takes effort. There is an overwhelming representation of students from multiple cultures, religious groups, and academic interests in our doctoral program. I really think it’s important to think about diversity broadly, especially in terms of how it impacts student learning. I think our doctoral program is a really good model for that.

What do you hope to do after earning your PhD?

I would like to continue focused research training through a postdoctoral fellowship and then obtain a tenure track position in a research-intensive university. I would also like to continue working in the front lines with other occupational therapists working with children and adults with intellectual disabilities. I feel immensely prepared to be able to walk into any university and do quality work. Our division has an incredible reputation in occupational therapy and occupational science, so I feel very well prepared.

Anderson Sullivan, public relations and communications intern in the Department of Allied Health Sciences