Physical Therapy Alum Pursues Boston University Rehabilitation Science Ph.D.

Jenna Zajac '17, '19G credits "overwhelming support and confidence that Nazareth gave me"

What inspired you to pursue physical therapy?

I injured my knee in middle school while playing soccer. I loved the idea of a job where I could help people every day and get them back to doing what they loved — as was done for me. I knew that the health care field was a stable career choice, but I was not interested in being an M.D., nurse, surgeon, etc. I loved learning about the human body, how it worked, and being with people every day – so physical therapy seemed like the perfect fit.

Jenna Zajac
Jenna Zajac PT

Why did you choose the PT program at Nazareth?

I had done my research and knew that Nazareth was recognized as one of the top physical therapy programs in the state. I was truly impressed by the caliber of the faculty and the unique experiences and education that they bring to the program.

In addition, Nazareth is one of the only 3+3 programs, which means that if you get accepted into the physical therapy program as an incoming freshman, you do not have to re-apply as long as you maintain your grades. This was very appealing since a lot of other schools required you to re-apply for the graduate portion. Another appealing component was the teacher-to-student ratio. The smaller size allowed for a more personal connection between the faculty and students, which enhanced the overall experience.

I had visited several schools, but there was something about Nazareth that stood out. From the minute I stepped onto the beautiful campus — with welcoming and friendly faces and an ideal location – Nazareth felt like home.

Jenna Zajac at the Delegate Assembly in Albany 2019

Jenna received the NYPTA student participation award for Nazareth at the Delegate Assembly in Albany.

York Wellness and Rehabilitation Institute

York Wellness & Rehabilitation Institute is home to student classes, clinics, and research.


What are you doing now, and what are your future plans/goals? What attracts you to that work?

I recently moved to Boston and will be starting the Ph.D. in rehabilitation science program at Boston University in September. I will be working under my mentor, Dr. Terry Ellis Ph.D., a physical therapist and neurologic clinical specialist in the Center for Neurorehabilitation, conducting research, and clinically working as a physical therapist providing care for people with neurological deficits. For research, I'll be helping with a clinical trial involving individuals with Parkinson's disease.

My goal is to continue to develop and format clinical questions about rehabilitation for individuals with neurological deficits, which I will work toward for my dissertation. I am interested in translational research, meaning how do we bring all of the research that is being done and actually apply it into clinical practice. Currently, it takes about 17 years for research results to be used in clinics, which is much too long. Upon graduating from BU, I want to work alongside expert clinicians to create clinically applicable and important research and develop specific ways that they can implement the findings into their treatment. I believe translational research is truly where our profession is headed and is what we need to keep moving forward.

Long-term, I want to teach and do research at a college or university to take the knowledge and experience I gain to not only help improve people's lives, but to inspire the future generation of physical therapists.

Jenna Zajac at BU

Jenna in front of the Boston University building where she will be completing the majority of her Ph.D. studies

Jenna Zajac at BU

View of Boston from the BU bridge on the Charles River


Describe your experience at Naz.

I believe Naz shaped me into the person I am today and gave me the confidence, support, and love to pursue my dreams — no matter how much they veered from the typical route of a PT student. The facilities and faculty were incredible and I could not speak higher of the entire physical therapy program. The personal connection and time that the faculty gave each student, the open and welcoming atmosphere of their offices, and the wonderful secretaries who helped to keep the program running are all components that make Naz the great school that it is.

The incredible opportunities that I had including service trips abroad (Dominican Republic and Costa Rica), involvement in the professional physical therapy organization, attending national conferences, and our on-campus clinics made me a much more well-rounded student, and now therapist. I learned more about myself in this program and the direction that I wanted to take my career, and all of the possibilities and flexible opportunities that the profession of physical therapy has to offer. The Naz faculty always told us we could make anything we wanted to out of this career. There are so many different directions and paths to take, and the great thing about PT is the scope of practice is growing and the realms of PT that you can get involved in are bountiful. I decided to go for my PhD because of the overwhelming support and confidence that Nazareth gave me and the faculty reinforced throughout my time in the program. Even after graduating I am still in touch with the faculty who are genuinely interested in how we are doing and the paths that we are on. Naz is one of those colleges you will always be a part of. Even though you may leave, the Nazareth community will always be there to welcome you home.

Jenna planting a tree in Costa Rica as a service to the community with fellow PT students from Naz
Jenna Zajac on Costa Rica Naz trip

Who/what inspired you to continue your education after receiving your PT degree?

Throughout my college career, I consistently found myself asking "why?" In the physical therapy program in particular, I was constantly asking questions, reviewing the literature, and practicing new skills to learn, understand, and improve. My passion for learning and research is what drove me to seek out a Ph.D. program so that I could continue on this path and contribute to advances in the physical therapy field and the overall health of society. The opportunities at Naz in the on-campus clinics and research projects were key in giving me a taste of the opportunities pursuing a Ph.D. could provide. I enjoyed finding a need in the population, formulating a question, designing and conducting a study, analyzing results, and implementing the findings into practice.

At Nazareth, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by some of the most intelligent, diverse, and experienced clinicians and researchers in our profession. Specifically, I worked closely with a few faculty members throughout the program who not only served as role models for the kind of professional I hope to resemble one day, but also drove my desire to continue my education after completing PT school. Dr. J.J. Mowder-Tinney (pictured below) is one whom I looked up to and admired throughout my 3 years in the graduate portion of the program. If I ever wanted to know if an idea I had would work, she would pull me in her office or the clinic and say, "Well, let's try it out." She emphasized the importance of asking questions consistently and to letting your patient drive the interventions/research you are developing. Dr. Mowder's passion and love for the clients she worked with and her students shined through. Her love of learning rubbed off on me and truly showed me that we are always growing. Even when we graduate, we know far from everything. She sat with me for hours looking at doctoral programs and guided me through applications and interviews. Her mentorship has led me to this next chapter that I am so excited to be starting.

Janna Zajac
Janna Zajac at 2017 Delegate Assembly

What research did you do while you were at Naz? How did it change your perspectives?

As part of the Nazareth PT program, you participate in a group research project throughout your second and third year of the graduate phase under the supervision of a faculty mentor. I worked with three other students and Dr. Linda Riek P.T., D.P.T., Ph.D. Our research focused on the use of biofeedback in optimizing serratus anterior (SA) and upper trapezius (UT) muscle activation ratios during a scaption exercise in individuals who have paraplegia. Our group used the Motion Analysis Laboratory (MAL) and worked with the wireless Electromyography (EMG) in the York Wellness and Rehabilitation Institute (YWRI) to collect our data.

Dr. Riek gave us the opportunity to take the lead on the project, but was always there for support and guidance. I got the chance to be more heavily involved in the data collection, analysis, and write up of our research. The end result of presenting our research, and the interest I could see on the faces of clinicians when we presented was incredible. I could see the impact that this research could one day have for both patients and clinicians, as well as a foundation for future research.

Jenna Zajac research poster

Poster project from research night at Naz 2019

Jenna Zajac, APTA

APTA Combined Sections Meeting 2019 in Washington D.C.; Jenna presented research at this conference with Prof. Linda Riek


How did Naz prepare you for your future endeavors?

Nazareth prepared me not only to be a great researcher and clinician, but also a more open-minded individual and professional. In the York Wellness and Rehabilitation Institute, I had the chance to collaborate with and be surrounded by other health professionals/students such as occupational therapists, speech therapists, and music therapists. In addition, the service trip to the Dominican Republic provided me with an inter-professional experience with speech therapists and recreational therapists, along with the individuals we worked with at the hospitals and facilities abroad. These collaborative experiences taught me how to work with others, be flexible, and adapt to the unexpected.

What did you love most about the physical therapy program at Naz?

One of my favorite parts of the Nazareth physical therapy program was the on-campus orthopedic, neuromuscular, wellness, and multiple sclerosis clinics that we were required to participate in as students. In addition, there were voluntary opportunities, such as a Parkinson's group and stroke group, which provided further clinical experience and mentored learning. I always felt like I had an outstanding support system between my clinical instructor and fellow students who challenged me as well as celebrated my successes. This created such a dynamic environment of knowledge and experience being poured into not only helping our clients, but helping each student to become a better clinician. Another great part was the ability to take concepts/ideas that we learned/practiced in class that morning, and apply it in clinic that very same day. Being able to work with actual patients with a variety of diagnoses not only gave me the confidence when going out on my clinical experiences, but kept me open-minded as to the vast scope of physical therapy and all of the routes you could take.

What one piece of advice would you give to future PT students?

Don't be afraid to follow your passion no matter how difficult the journey may seem to get there. If it's easy, you aren't dreaming big enough. Be focused, but remain open to all of the possibilities that this profession has to offer. Keep learning and growing, stay humble, and never settle. Take advantage of every opportunity you can because it may lead you down a path you never expected, but one that just may change your life.

Update 2021: While pursuing her Ph.D. in rehabilitation science at Boston University, Zajac received a prestigious research award from the Foundation for Physical Therapy Research for a project analyzing the relationship between walking capacity and real-world walking activity in people with Parkinson's disease.