Clinical physical therapy professor triumphs award

Julie Tilson poses with her award from the APTA for leadership in education.
Dr. Julie Tilson’s work includes 32 peer-reviewed publications since 2007. Her current scholarship focuses on helping clinicians use evidence and research from clinical trials to better their patient care. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Julie Tilson) 

Dr. Julie Tilson, professor of clinical physical therapy at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, received an award for leadership in education late February from the American Physical Therapy Association Academy of Education — one of the highest honors in the field.

Tilson earned the award with her scholarship and administrative contributions in a long journey of physical therapy education. Besides being the director and one of the innovators of the hybrid Doctor of Physical Therapy program, Tilson’s work is recognized nationally and helps patients with physical challenges such as paralysis or vestibular disorders. 

“I was very honored,” Tilson said. “There are not many national teaching awards … so, to be nominated, to be seen by my peers as being worthy of such an honor was very rewarding and humbling.” 

Associate Dean and Chair of USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy Dr. James Gordon initially nominated Tilson for the APTAE award. Tilson’s peers soon joined the process of gathering letters of recommendation and a 54-page packet of her work history.

“[The APTAE award] recognizes not just somebody who’s a good teacher, which [Tilson] is, but somebody who has really shown leadership and leadership at the national level as well,” Gordon said. “She’s an extraordinary teacher who’s demonstrated that she can be an exemplary teacher, and she’s a model for everybody else in our program.” 

APTAE, which is one of the oldest physical therapy associations in the United States, aims to uplift physical therapy practice, education and evidence-based research to mend the health and quality of life of people in society, according to its website. Award eligibility is highly competitive and requires the recipient to prove outstanding leadership skills with many reference letters and documented long-term activity in the field of physical therapy.

Tilson’s work includes 32 peer-reviewed publications since 2007, along with 11 non peer-reviewed publications. She also co-wrote the definitive textbook, “Evidence Based Physical Therapy,” alongside retired USC adjunct professor Linda Fetters.

Tilson, who was academically successful from a very young age, said she knew she wanted to follow a path in healthcare from early on. At the age of 12, Tilson read a book about a child with cerebral palsy who was told she would never walk. In the novel, a physical therapist helped the child walk again, which inspired Tilson’s career, she said. 

Today, Tilson’s scholarship and teaching focuses on evidence-based practices where she helps clinicians use research and clinical trials to improve patient care. One example that Tilson gave was from her study about how physical therapists should provide care to people with certain types of inner ear disorders. 

“I became very passionate early in my career that this was something that really mattered, that made a difference in patients’ lives,” Tilson said. “It makes a difference in how providers feel about the care that they’re providing. It feels great when you know there’s good solid evidence behind what you’re doing.”

At the DPT program, Tilson’s work focuses on administrative leadership. The USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy began structuring a hybrid physical therapy program in 2017, and Tilson played a massive role in its creation, Gordon said.

Tilson put together and organized asynchronous and synchronous activities for the three-year-program. Students learn from recorded videos of different therapy techniques, from live Zoom sessions to in-person immersions, where students practice their skills in 8-9 day labs, Gordon said. 

“You want to keep your focus on trying to make things better for the people you’re leading,” Tilson said. “It’s not about your ego. It’s not about that some people aren’t going to like things, because there’s always going to be people that don’t like things, but it’s about doing your darndest to make things better for the group as a whole.”

Gordon said that while the biggest challenge was to translate a hands-on discipline such as physical therapy to a hybrid program in 2017, Tilson created it from scratch, defied all odds and saw it through. The DPT program will graduate its first class this fall. 

Melodie Daniels is one of the students who plans to graduate with a doctorate in physical therapy this year and serves as the DPT program’s first president. Daniels described Dr. Tilson as wise, quirky and unique with a fun personality. She said that instead of giving general advice, Tilson looks at the student’s track record and provides specific recommendations for their academic growth.

“Tilson is an incredible educator,” Daniels said. “She’s really good about looking at a specific student, or just anyone who’s on some type of educational journey, and figuring out what they need to be better.” 

Tilson has not only made a difference in the lives of her students, but in the lives of previous patients as well, as evidenced by her office décor.

On the back wall in Tilson’s office hangs a framed Hawaiian yarn lei. Nearly 17 years ago, one of Dr. Tilson’s patients suffered from paralysis of her arm and hand following a stroke. After many physical therapy setbacks and successes, the 80-year-old woman finally achieved her goal of knitting a Hawaiian yarn lei, which she gifted to Tilson. 

In the future Dr. Tilson plans to continue to find mechanisms and avenues to improve physical therapy and education, and said she could have never done it without the help and support of her family and colleagues. She said her goal is for students to graduate DPT with confidence in their capabilities to provide care to patients.

“I want [students] to see that I’ve been accountable to what their needs are as learners, and that I have created an environment to optimize their success,” Dr. Tilson said. “I am trying to create a faculty, staff and institutional culture that meets every student where they are and does everything they can to help them be not just a physical therapist, but the best darn physical therapist they can possibly be.”