Congratulations to the recipient of the fourth annual Jim Hinojosa Distinguished Alumni Award, Dr. Diane Powers Dirette. The award, initiated to honor the legacy of the late Dr. Jim Hinojosa at the time of his retirement, recognizes outstanding NYU Steinhardt Department of Occupational Therapy (OT) alumni who have made significant contributions to the profession.
Dr. Dirette is a two-time alum of NYU OT, having earned her MA in Advanced Occupational Therapy in 1993 and her PhD in Occupational Therapy in 1997. She is a professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Western Michigan University and serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Open Journal of Occupational Therapy (OJOT), an open-access scholarly journal she founded in 2010.
Dr. Dirette is also the new co-editor, with fellow NYU OT alum Dr. Sharon Gutman (MA ‘95 PhD ’98), of the 8th edition of the textbook Occupational Therapy for Physical Dysfunction, formerly edited by Radomski and Trombly. She is also the co-editor (with Dr. Ben Atchison) of the 5th edition of Conditions in Occupational Therapy: Effect on Occupational Performance, with the 6th edition in process.
We connected with Dr. Dirette to learn more about her career, her advice for OTs entering the field, and what it was like to work with Dr. Hinojosa.
What inspired you to pursue occupational therapy as a profession?
I was a teenager when I made the decision that I wanted to be an occupational therapist. I was very interested in art, social work, and physical therapy, but I wanted to find a way to combine them. I don't think occupational therapy was that well known at the time, but someone happened to mention it to me. Back then, we didn't have the internet so I went to the library in my town and found an address for the American Occupational Therapy Association. I wrote a letter to them asking for information about the profession and they sent me this huge packet of information. That's when I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in occupational therapy – I feel really lucky that it turned out to be a match.
You have published many articles advancing the profession’s understanding of brain injury. What sparked your research interests initially?
Where I started and what I continue to research is what I like to call “clinical irritations.” I think the best research comes from a clinical perspective because clinicians are on the front line – they encounter the problems that the field doesn’t have the answers to yet, and they're the ones who know the gaps in the research and evidence.
My first project for my master's thesis at NYU was on edema in hands using data I collected while working at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation. After a stroke or traumatic brain injury, patients often can't move their extremities and get a build-up of fluid called edema. Our team was following all of the existing protocols for treating edema and the clients were still ending up with fluid in their hands. I worked on researching this clinical irritation with Dr. Jim Hinojosa and we ended up identifying continuous passive movement as an addition to the existing treatment protocol to keep the hands from developing a build-up.
What was it like working with Dr. Jim Hinojosa?
Jim was a mentor and friend. He was always calm and supportive – he made you believe you have something to contribute to the profession. He was constructive. He was encouraging.
You know, I wouldn't have gone on to my doctorate without him. I was just finishing up my advanced master’s and had no intention of doing my PhD at that point. Jim called me and said, “I want to meet with you and talk to you about this.” I told him that I couldn’t see myself completing a PhD yet – I was still working full time and wanted to move back to Michigan eventually. We discussed my career path and my desire to teach and Jim said, “You’re going to go on and get your PhD. You can do it.” And I did – I'm so grateful for that conversation. He believed in me and I would not have the career I have without him.
What would you consider the most significant accomplishment of your career so far?
I’ve been the Editor-in-Chief of the Open Journal of Occupational Therapy for almost 10 years now. Before first conceptualizing OJOT, I was on a few different editorial review boards for OT and non-OT journals. Occupational therapy is an international profession, but there weren’t many opportunities for international research collaboration at that time. I was really interested in the concept of a free, open-access journal and thought, “This is something that the OT profession needs.”
I've had the great fortune of having the financial support of Fred Sammons and Barbara Rider in bringing OJOT to life. I remember early conversations with them thinking we could get maybe 15 countries to download and contribute to OJOT. 199 countries are now involved, and we're almost at half a million full-text downloads! OJOT has taken off beyond our wildest dreams. It's been a labor of love and a great joy.
What do you think is the most important lesson you learned during your time at NYU Steinhardt?
The greatest thing I gained from NYU was the ability to be a critical thinker – to step back and not just “jump on the bandwagon” as Dr. Anne Mosey used to say. She taught our class to be open to new ideas taking hold throughout the profession, but to keep a critical eye on them.
What advice do you have for OTs beginning their careers?
In the words of Walt Disney, “It’s a small, small world.” The OT profession is a small one comparatively, so I don't think you ever can overestimate the importance of your colleagues – not just your faculty, but also the students you're in classrooms with, the people you meet in the clinic, and the people who you practice with. You have to think about being a professional the day you start in an OT classroom. You're going to be working with these people likely for the rest of your career and you're never going to stop learning from them.
Learn from everybody and don’t burn bridges. Those are my words of wisdom.