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Sports Medicine & Exercise Science Ascending

Annie Carrera had been studying at St. Thomas University for nearly two years, but she had not quite found her true major.

Instead, Carrera’s major found her.

Carrera, a Miami native who is on STU’s Women Tennis team, was majoring in Biology in the summer of 2021 when she overheard a Bobcat soccer coach telling a recruit about the school’s sports-medicine major.

At that point, Carrera reacted with something akin to Scooby-Doo’s famed “huh?” inquisitive reaction.

“I said to myself, ‘That major doesn’t exist here,’” Carrera said. “But I soon found out that we had hired (Dr. Kathleen Williams) to start this major.

“It took a leap of faith for me because it was brand new, but it was the perfect time to switch majors. All my prerequisites stayed the same in the switch (from Biology to her new major, Allied Health-Sports Medicine).

“Dr. Williams came along at the perfect time.”

Lots of students feel that way about Dr. Williams, a native of Buffalo who has a number of impressive degrees, including a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of New England.

Williams has vast experience, working since 1999 as an athletic trainer at various schools and hospitals.

She became interested in STU when David A. Armstrong, J.D., was hired as university president in 2018. As it turned out, Dr. Williams’ husband, Mark Williams, had been a kicker for Mercyhurst University, located in Erie, Pennsylvania. President Armstrong was a Mercyhurst football coach during the time Mark Williams had been on the team.

That was all the connection Dr. Kathy Williams needed.

With the spirit and vigor of a fearless and visionary entrepreneur, Dr. Williams wrote a 22-page proposal and sent it to President Armstrong, saying: “Here’s how I can help you by adding a Health Sciences program.”

President Armstrong hired Dr. Williams in July of 2021. She was tasked with starting STU’s Health Sciences degree, and its full accreditation by SACSCOC. In addition, she served as an STU Athletic Trainer and Assistant Professor.

“At that time, we had and still have a robust biology department,” Dr. Williams said. “I said, ‘Wow, if we just add these 10 to 12 courses, we can start two other majors that are very popular with students.”

It is so popular, in fact, that STU now has 128 students in Dr. Williams’ program. Those students are split into three tracks:

  1. Those who are majoring in pre-professional, training for medical school.
  2. Those who are majoring in Allied Health-Sports Medicine.
  3. Those who are majoring in Exercise Science and Human Performance.

“We’ve been growing very quickly,” Dr. Williams said.

It has been growing so quickly that Dr. Williams – STU’s Program Director of Health Sciences –was allowed to hire additional staff.

In July, Dr. Williams/STU hired Jason Dawlabani as an Athletic Trainer, Professor, and Internship Coordinator. In August, Dr. Williams/STU hired Dr. Nichole Lowe as a visiting Assistant Professor of Health Sciences.

Dawlabani, a native of Trenton, New Jersey, earned his Master’s degree in Athletic Training at Gannon University. At Gannon, Dr. Williams was one of his professors.

As Internship Coordinator at STU, Dawlabani has helped students land spots as interns in various fields – physical therapy, occupational therapy, and athletic trainer.

“We require our students to put in 12 to 15 hours per week in internships,” Dawlabani said. “We want them to get real-life experience.”

Indeed, some of STU’s students have worked as interns at Baptist Health hospitals. Others have interned at pharmaceutical companies or have worked with athletes preparing for the NFL Draft.

Dr. Lowe, who was born in Ontario (Canada) and raised in Indianapolis, has a doctorate degree in Physical Therapy.

She was in high school when – as she puts it – she was first interested “in the world of rehab” because her mother had been diagnosed with a movement disorder. In addition, Dr. Lowe’s sister, a Marine, had been injured, and she also required rehab.

From there, Dr. Lowe became fascinated with biomedical engineering and prosthetics, and then exercise science and physical therapy.

She found STU because her brother-in-law, Jerome Smith, is a defensive line coach for the Bobcats, and she is loving her time as a professor here.

“This is an in-demand field that has been growing over the past 20 or 30 years,” Dr. Lowe said.

“Due to COVID, our country has been in a long period of inactivity. We were already in an obesity pandemic, and new research has shown the importance of exercise for health and wellness.

“There’s a dire need for more health-care providers, and we at St. Thomas are trying to fill that void.”

Dr. Williams said her program has grown so large that she would like to add more staff, starting with a position to manage STU’s new research and human performance lab.

The space used for the lab was once the Augustinian monastery’s chapel. Since then, STU has spent more than $200,000 to make that space a state-of-the-art sports science laboratory.

Dr. Williams said she has received enormous support from administrators, and a key figure in that has been Dr. Jeffrey Plunkett, the acting Dean of the Health Sciences and Technology program.

“This space was not being used when I got here,” Dr. Williams said. “We got the go-ahead to use it in May of 2022, and a lot of work has been put in to make it a first-rate facility.

“The next step is to expand the use. Since we have all this equipment for testing, we need to use it on our athletes. Why wouldn’t we offer the services to them that we are showing our students how to use?

“We also want to incorporate the community, bringing in runners, or other groups who can take advantage of this equipment.”

STU, for example, has a $60,000 “bod pod” machine. Students also have at their disposal new equipment for metabolic testing, machines that can track oxygen consumption and “any type of fitness test you can think of as well as body-fat testing and fitness assessment.”

Dr. Williams said larger universities such as the University of Miami and Florida State have similar equipment.

“But at a lot of universities, students don’t get to use this equipment until they get to graduate school,” Dr. Williams said. “For us, our undergraduate students are already being trained on this equipment.”

Eric Demps is one of the students impacted by STU’s new equipment and lab. Demps, who is set to graduate in May with a degree in Exercise Science, played football and ran track at STU. Now, he wants to be a personal trainer and occupational therapist, and he is grateful to his STU professors.

“They are hands-on and very understanding, but they don’t coddle you,” Demps said. “They make sure you are learning the information, and they give us room to put that information to use. It’s not just classroom learning.”
Chercy Desir, who is set to graduate in May with a degree in Allied Health-Sports Medicine, is one of the first two STU students to intern at Baptist Heath.

She was initially enrolled in STU’s nursing program. After speaking Sport Sciences professors, she found Sports Medicine a much better fit.

“Dr. Williams is so warm and welcoming,” Desir said. “I like to excel and stay on track. When I didn’t understand this program at first, she was a great help.”

Dominic Barr, who is a long snapper on STU’s football team, is set to graduate in December with a degree in Exercise Science.

The son of a police officer, Barr’s goal is to become a firefighter, and he feels his Exercise Science major has helped him in numerous ways.

“This program has taught me more about health, anatomy, and first aid,” Barr said. “Dr. Williams is really smart.

“There have been times when I’ve read the textbook and been confused. But I talk to our professors, and they break it down.”

Carrera was recently accepted into the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the University of Miami. She will start in May, shortly after graduating from STU.

Pretty soon, however, students such as Carrera will not have to leave STU to get their Master’s degrees, and here is why:

Dr. Williams has been tasked by President Armstrong to create a Master’s in Exercise Science program by the Fall of 2024.

“That would be awesome, because Dr. Williams already has experience teaching Master’s programs,” Carrera said. “Once that program gets started, it will be cool for students to do their undergraduate work at St. Thomas and then continue on, surrounded by familiar faces who know how you learn, how you think and how you study.”

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