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From Dancer to DPT/PHD

Mary Alice White 18DPT choreographs a new career

By Dana Goldman

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Former dancer and current DPT/PhD student Mary Alice White says her former career informs a new passion for science.

For years, Mary Alice White 18DPT worked as a professional, classically trained dancer in New York. Now White, 35, has a new identity: Emory’s first dual DPT/PhD student. As she prepares to finish her DPT coursework and rotations, she is also beginning a doctoral program in Applied Physiology through Emory’s partnership with Georgia Tech.

White had been dancing professionally for eight years when she decided it was time for a career change. “Dancing was wonderful until it wasn’t,” she says. “All of a sudden I thought, My body is so tired. There’s a shelf life for being a dancer. I danced until I was about 30, which is a long career for a lot of people.”

She became interested in physical therapy while doing a side job as a Pilates teacher. “Clients with complicated issues would come in, and I became more and more interested in how to help them,” says White. “But I didn’t understand the pathology.” She became intent on building a skill set that would provide relief to people in pain. “When I decided I was done dancing, it made sense to me to head in the direction of physical therapy so I could gain the clinical understanding of what my clients were going through.”

Before applying to physical therapy programs, White took prerequisite courses in New York. In doing so, she also discovered a new passion and talent for science. “I found I was more of a science nerd than I had anticipated,” says White. “I loved chemistry. Thinking about the way atoms interact in three-dimensional space reminded me of dance and body parts moving in space. So chemistry felt like an interesting bridge between what I had been doing and this new venture I was on.” A subsequent neuroscience course confirmed her new direction, leading her to imagine a new life for herself that included clinical physical therapy work and applied research.

White applied to Emory because of its DPT/PhD program and after hearing Professor Steve Wolf talk at an American Physical Therapy Association conference. “A lightbulb went off for me,” White says. “I thought, ‘This is the kind of research I’m interested in.’”

Specifically, White hopes to focus on molecular changes that underlie neuroplastic change in the area around a neurological injury immediately after that injury has occurred. She’s betting that increased understanding could lead to potential implications for treatment protocols.

For Mary Alice White, her continuing excitement serves as confirmation that she is on the right professional path. “I don’t feel like I’ve stepped into another life. The dual DPT/PhD feels like a reasonable progression from where I started. This is what I love and, like dance, I’m just going for it.”

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