Just Getting Started: Researcher Dr. Katherine Pohlman Credits Her Success to Hard Work and Good Fortune

By Sienna Shoup

Representing a new generation of researchers is no easy feat, but as the current research director at Parker University, Katherine Pohlman, DC, MS, PhD, is doing just that.

Since joining Parker’s team in 2015, Dr. Pohlman has designed two entrepreneurial programs aimed at increasing the college’s research productivity. Through one, faculty and staff were able to bring their ideas for new research along with their clinical expertise to Dr. Pohlman, who in turn provided research methodology and guidance. The second program achieved the design of curriculum updates for Parker that incorporated evidence-based practice (EBP) competencies.

According to Parker University President William Morgan, DC, prior to Dr. Pohlman’s arrival, only 10 percent of Parker faculty were involved with research activity; however, under her direction, participation has increased to 65 percent. Because of her updates and program implementations, Parker research activities have expanded exponentially. Dr. Morgan says Dr. Pohlman is leading the chiropractic research agenda into the next generation while displaying “excellent communication skills and a unique ability to convey information both clearly and positively.”

Dr. Pohlman earned both her MSc degree in Clinical Research and DC degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, before earning a PhD in Pediatrics from the University of Alberta, Canada. She began her research career at the Palmer Center for Chiropractic Research as a clinical project manager for several U.S. federally funded clinical trials and has since concentrated her research efforts in the areas of safety and effectiveness of pediatric chiropractic care and other special populations.

As a result of Dr. Pohlman’s hard work and successes, earlier this year, at ACA’s annual meeting, Engage 2020, she was awarded the prestigious Dr. George B. McClelland Researcher of the Year Award (see photo). During her acceptance speech, she proudly stated, “I’m just getting started. Until chiropractic is at the forefront of health care options, we’ve got work to do, and I’m on it.”

Get to know Dr. Pohlman better in this ACA Blogs Q&A:

How did you first become interested in research?

Since my first experience with a chiropractor at age 12, I wanted to be someone who worked with patients to help them get out of pain. When I graduated from Palmer, my husband had a year to go in the program. I knew I wanted to be more research literate, and the doors to obtain a MS in Clinical Research from Palmer were serendipitously opened.

While I was in this program, a wise mentor saw my as-yet-to-be-discovered skill sets and helped me steer my career path accordingly. The MS program allowed me to experience situations where I could use my organizational skills, time management abilities, and curiosity all at once. I fell in love with research, and I saw that by conducting research, I could still care for patients —only on a much larger scale.

Pediatrics has been a focus of yours. Why?

It’s a family tradition. I have a sister who is a pediatric nurse practitioner and another who works within her local school system to support children’s learning activities. When I started my research career, I was also parenting my own children, and I was curious (and sometimes frustrated) about the different messages I received about chiropractic care for children. As a healthcare professional, I wanted to share information and treatment plans that were backed by evidence.

When I discovered that almost all of my training, including my post-graduate pediatric diplomate training, was mostly based on clinical experience rather than on research, I started seeking ways to mature that training, not only for myself, but for others as well. First, I wanted our profession to be literate in the research so that we could not only share information responsibly, but also state when treatment plans are from clinical experience or patient’s value only (and to know when we are not the best option). Second, to not resign ourselves to a lack of evidence, but to become the driving force to provide our profession with what it deserves: high-quality evidence. I do pediatric research so that as a profession, we can deliver the best care possible for children.

When did you become the director of research at Parker? What was the process like?

Director of Research is truly a dream job for me. I moved into the position by being willing to approach open doors with unknown landings, by consistently demonstrating a commitment to research excellence, and just being in the right place at the right time.

While I was completing my PhD program in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, I felt a strong desire to belong to a place where my children would be able to grow some roots. I knew that getting a full-time job would only make it more difficult to finish up my PhD, especially long-distance, but family comes first. At that time (2015), Parker University was the ONLY U.S.-based chiropractic program with any research openings. That fact is still concerning to me. When a chiropractor has strong research skills, U.S. chiropractic programs should ALL have openings—they should be competing for such an individual. In any case, Parker was an optimal choice for me, as I also had a family member who lived in the Dallas area who had come in need of more assistance. It was an ideal fit.

I was initially hired at Parker University as a clinical research scientist, then I became interim director when that role opened. After a year of demonstrating my capacity, I was hired as their full-time director of research. This canvas of opportunity has been supported by faculty with the desire to be evidence-based, with students who value patient-centered research literacy, and an administration that knows that the currency for our profession to thrive in the future is in the evidence that is being developed now. I couldn’t be more grateful for this opportunity.

You increased the percentage of faculty at Parker conducting research from 10 to 65 percent. How did you do that?

I just gave them a slight nudge in the correct direction, which was met by an equal passion for research excellence by the faculty. The faculty at Parker were ready and willing to have an outlet to explore the questions that academics naturally generate. Having administrative support–especially from the president, Dr. Bill Morgan, and the Board of Trustees–to generate resources for faculty to excel (i.e., scientific writing support, biostatistical consultations, data collection electronic platforms, etc.) was also key to faculty success.

What has been the reaction of students and faculty to the updates you made to the curriculum?

The response has been positive and supportive, across the board.

While change is often met with resistance, the Parker faculty, students, and administration were wanting a curriculum that developed both research literacy and clinical experience—learning and teaching that nurtured the full evidence-based practice paradigm. While still in the development phase of this change, I have yet to see a barrier that is unsurmountable. I only see faculty wanting and finding creative ways to implement this paradigm within their classes. I am excited to see the students’ outcomes when we have a full curriculum up and running. As a shameless plug, Parker will be hosting the PIE (Process of Integrating Evidence) conference in August 2021. This conference aims to teach chiropractic faculty how to implement evidence concepts into classroom and clinic settings, as well as provide administrators with the capacity to develop a curriculum that generates research literacy for all chiropractic students.

How will the changes you made to the curriculum help students after they graduate and begin practice?

While skills learned during a healthcare professional’s training years need to continuously evolve and grow, these skills learned during that time should function both as a springboard to propel them forward in their career and as a foundation–something they can return to for support and to stay grounded. I strive for students to have a desire to be able evaluate research confidently. I want students to know that it is okay to say that we don’t have any credible research…yet. We teach them how and when to modify clinical management based on emerging evidence, and to be willing to do so even when one’s clinical experience is different. Additionally, students will hopefully see the value of investing in research, either through participation or through financial support. These are dynamic, fundamental skills that will lead to optimal patient care throughout their careers.

What type of research are you currently conducting at Parker?

For the pediatric population, I continue to write manuscripts from data collected within my PhD thesis; I am also developing further research from what was learned/discovered from that data. For the pregnancy/post-partum population, I am a part of a team performing a systematic review and creating a best-practice guideline document. This review will help identify the critical needs in research activities within these populations, which will hopefully develop into funded research opportunities. Additionally, together with my colleague at Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, Dr. Martha Funabashi, I’m continuing with SafetyNET and other patient safety research projects, including a recent funding from the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation (CCRF) to explore the safety of chiropractic care in the elderly population.

You gave a very inspiring speech at Engage 2020 when you accepted your award. Your passion is evident. How are you igniting a passion for research in students?

The passion is real; I’m glad to hear it was palpable. I truly love the chiropractic profession. We have so much to offer our patients—likely far more than we actually know or think at this time.

We need more mentors who demonstrate how excellence can be achieved. The research that needs to be done is hard work, but the outcomes for better patient care are so worth our time and effort. I don’t think this passion needs to be ignited in students, because I find they are already filled with passion and desire for a strong profession. What needs to be nurtured—and funded—are the opportunities to strengthen research opportunities within the profession. Hopefully, I am fueling these opportunities and demonstrating the outcomes of committing to hard work and excellence. I want students’ current passion for research to continue to burn.

What are the takeaways from your success?

Failure: It’s a necessary part of the work. Learn from it.
Struggles: They occur daily. Expect them.
Hard work: Do it continuously. Welcome the way it makes you stronger.
Excellence: Strive for it relentlessly. Praise it when you see it.
Mentors/Colleagues: Find them, love them. And be a good one.

Katherine Pohlman, DC, MS, PhD

What can you teach others?

I’m not sure exactly what I have to teach others, but I do know that I love collaborative environments where we can teach EACH other. This collaboration is the beauty of research. I always, always discover something new during the development of a protocol. I not only learn from the different perspectives everyone brings to the table, but also from the outcomes, which have always provided me with more new knowledge than I could have ever dreamed. If we all strived to continuously learn rather than cling to our current understanding, the care we provide for patients would excel beyond what we can even currently imagine. I dream big, but learning and discovering from others has yet to disappoint me.

Who has inspired you? Do you have any chiropractic research heroes?

I have been so, so fortunate to be constantly surrounded by inspirational individuals throughout my career. A woman who I have great admiration for who has been a part of my scientific career since the beginning is Dr. Cynthia Long. I often call her my “scientific mom,” as she generously gave me the opportunities to discover both my natural research skill sets and the burning curiosity that set my career in motion.

Dr. Long, who has a PhD in biostatistics, is the dean of research at Palmer College of Chiropractic. I started my scientific career as a MS student in the program that she developed and directed, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health. In the program, her consistent professionalism and mentorship focused on respect and high-quality methodology. From the start of my career, when I am pretty sure I knew next to nothing, she made sure that I felt like I belonged, that I knew I deserved to be in the room. For any team that she led, it didn’t matter what position you had–everyone was equal and their opinion mattered. She continues to be a hidden gem in our field. Her impact has and will continue to advance our research; she’s an asset to the profession.

What advice do you have for others interested in a career in research?

Stay open to opportunities, even when they appear trivial. By being willing to get in the dirt, to do the unglamorous work, you will discover how much you love (or hate) research. Walk through open doors—it’s often the ones that you are most uncertain about that offer incredible opportunities.

Sienna Shoup is a senior associate in the ACA Branding and Communications Department. She can be reached at [email protected].