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Dr. Stephanie Bristol, a 2023 graduate of the Doctoral program in Occupational Science at UNC, has always had a passion for caring for and working with animals. She grew up on a farm and is the daughter of two veterinarians who introduced her to a variety of

Stephanie with Finnley (left) and Bentley (right).

pets and horseback riding at an early age. She worked for several summers at veterinary clinics, volunteered with a therapeutic riding center, and spent the majority of her time outside of school and soccer being with animals.

Stephanie completed her undergraduate years at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied Spanish and Exercise and Sport Science. From there, she worked toward and achieved her master’s in occupational therapy at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). During her time at MUSC she trained and registered her golden retriever, Ripley, as a therapy dog. Together they volunteered in orphanages, homeless shelters, and nursing homes. Stephanie could tell Ripley was making a difference in the community, and that realization changed her entire career trajectory.

Building upon her success with Ripley, she worked to expand the therapy dog program at MUSC’s hospital to the Outpatient Children’s Therapy Center and it was a hit among patients and providers alike. “As the program grew and became more popular, leadership at the hospital began asking about measurable outcomes, to see if it was making a difference for clients,” said Bristol. “At the time I had been interested in pursuing a PhD, and knew I needed to further my education to conduct quality research in this area.”

Forging a Unique Path Toward a PhD

Bristol was drawn to UNC’s PhD in Occupational Science program thanks to her positive experience as an undergraduate Tarheel and the program’s stellar reputation. The PhD program allows students flexibility to do their dissertation on a topic of true personal interest, and faculty were supportive of her goals. “Human-animal interaction hadn’t been studied previously in occupational science,” said Bristol. “The opportunity to conduct research in an area where I was truly passionate was special and challenging, and helped me grow as a researcher.”

Her dissertation focused on the partnership of autism assistance dogs with autistic children and their families with a specific focus on community participation. For example, she examined the impact of incorporating an assistance dog on the quantity and quality of family outings, overall parent stress, and child behavior and sleep.

Stephanie and one of her horses, Ballenger.

During her time in the program, Bristol published an article in the Journal of Occupational Science about how animals can impact human occupation on a daily basis, an accomplishment she considers high on her list of positive experiences during her time at UNC. “Overall, I am proud of myself for persevering and opening the door for human-animal studies in the field of occupational science,” Bristol said. “It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of faculty, especially Dr. Bagatell.”

Additionally, Bristol feels fortunate to have been a part of research teams in the PIE and Harrop Lab. “Dr. Linda Watson, Dr. Clare Harrop and their teams were instrumental in my research education,” she said. “I learned so much from them about conducting research, running a cross-site NIH R01 study, managing teams and more.”

Up Next: A Postdoctoral Opportunity at University of Arizona

Though she has spent her life in the Carolinas, following graduation in May Bristol was off to her next adventure across the country at the University of Arizona. She is working under Dr. Maggie O’Haire, Associate Dean for Research in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. O’Haire is part of the largest human-animal interaction group in the country, and Bristol is thrilled for the opportunity to work with her. “I have admired Dr. O’Haire’s work for a long time, and it’s a dream come true to work with a true leader in the field,” she said. “I still have so much to learn, and I’m looking forward to taking the next step in my research career under her guidance.” While at Arizona she will be working on a national NIH R01 project evaluating the efficacy of service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

Bristol notes her biggest goal for her post-doc position and beyond is to expand her skillset as a human animal interaction researcher. “UNC’s occupational science program gave me a very strong research foundation, and I worked with amazing people there,” she said. “My goal for this post-doc is to continue my education and in the future, I hope to work as a faculty member in a human animal interaction research lab to study the benefits for both humans and animals alike.”

Her research is not the only time she spends with animals – Bristol continued to ride and show her horses in eventing, cared for her two dogs and helped her parents manage their farm during her time at UNC. Her dogs and horse made the move with her to Arizona. “Being with animals, especially spending time with my dogs and riding horses, gives me great joy and is a stress reliever for me,” said Bristol. “I’m grateful to my parents for instilling in me the love I have for animals and to Dr. Bagatell, UNC’s Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy director, for allowing me to pursue my passions during my PhD studies.”