Ph.D. Research Fueled by National Physical Therapy Scholarship

Kirby Mayer, from Somerset, Kentucky, says the first time he saw a physical therapist was when one treated his grandmother. That’s when he decided to pursue PT, but he admits research wasn't at the top of his mind when he graduated from the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the UK Center of Excellence in Rural Health in 2014. 

“While I was working at the UK Chandler Hospital in the ICU, there was a gentleman who had a bilateral lung transplant. He couldn't roll out of bed, couldn't stand up. Working with him sparked that research interest. What can we do? It's amazing to see someone go from comatose to back to daily life. Just last year he went on a motorcycle ride. His surgeon said he would never ride the bike again, but he did.”

Helping patients get back to their regular lives motivates Mayer, a Ph.D. candidate in the Rehabilitation Sciences Doctoral Program in the UK College of Health Sciences. “We have more and more elderly. We're seeing more admissions to the ICU, and so I know that I can have a great impact, especially in our physical therapy approach to treatment.”

Mayer’s research focuses on how physical therapists classify patients with critical illness based on the severity of muscular dysfunction—loss of muscle strength and power. By improving classification of ICU-acquired weakness, Mayer hopes to improve how and when physical therapists implement interventions.

This summer the Foundation for Physical Therapy selected Mayer to receive a prestigious $15,000 Promotion of Doctoral Studies (PODS) II Scholarship for his research project titled “Muscular Dysfunction and Functional Outcomes in Patients with Critical Illness.” This scholarship comes at a critical time for Mayer—he is finished with his coursework and beginning his own research program. It will allow him to recruit patients for his study, help patients travel back to UK for follow up after their ICU stay, and enable him to travel to conferences to share his research. “This scholarship makes the research doable,” Mayer says. 

He credits his success to his mentors: Dr. Esther Dupont-Versteegden, a basic science researcher and director of the Rehabilitation Sciences Doctoral Program in the College of Health Sciences, and Dr. Peter Morris, chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at UK HealthCare. 

Mayer says, “Dr. Dupont-Versteegden and Dr. Morris provide a unique blend of basic and clinical science. I am undoubtedly fortunate to have exceptional mentors and work with amazing physicians, therapists, nurses and scientists at UK, however, without the support and sacrifices of my wife, Nikki, my research would be impossible. She deserves the credit for keeping me motivated, balanced and grounded. We’re preparing for twins, so a lot is changing, but we’re focusing on balance.”