Division professor joins pantheon of physical therapy greats

BethFisher

BY JOHN HOBBS MA ’14

This week, division professor Beth Fisher joined a pantheon of physical therapy greats — including associate dean James Gordon, professor Carolee Winstein MS ’84 and the late Helen Hislop — when she delivered the prestigious G. Maureen Rodgers Visions for Physical Therapy Lecture at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, Calif.

The annual lecture provides a platform for national leaders to think critically about physical therapy.

“I never thought I would achieve the kind of acclaim that would put me forward as a possible candidate to deliver this,” Fisher said.

Fisher’s presentation, titled “My Journey from the Bench to Bedside and Beyond,” chronicled the twists and turns of her academic career, which began at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy.

Fisher earned her master’s degree in physical therapy from USC in 1980. She received her PhD in 2000, completing her dissertation under the guidance of Dr. Carolee Winstein MS ’84, with whom she also worked at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center.

Early in her career, Fisher focused on stroke. But her academic career took a different path after she worked with Norman and Lisette Ackerberg, philanthropists who supported her postdoctoral studies through their foundation, with no expectations about what area of focus she’d pursue.

“I felt so connected to them that I wanted to pursue work in an area that would be particularly meaningful to them,” Fisher explained.

Norman, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 76, had multiple sclerosis. His wife Lisette has fought Parkinson’s disease for nearly three decades.

“In a million years, I never would have imagined myself in a molecular biology lab in my 40s, running mice on a treadmill at 10 p.m.,” joked Fisher, who changed her career focus to Parkinson’s disease.

“In physical therapy, you have to realize it’s not just about how you impact the life of your patients but also how unbelievably they can impact your life,” Fisher said to the crowd, which included Lisette Ackerberg.

Since switching focus to Parkinson’s disease, Fisher has cultivated an impressive research career. Her research lab, the Neuroplasticity and Imaging Laboratory, was the first to demonstrate brain change in humans due to exercise, which has been an important part of the work that has led to a paradigm shift in the way physical therapy is used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Individuals with Parkinson’s disease are now seen earlier, and the overall programs are much more challenging and intensive than they used to be, she explained.

“In my speech, I wanted to showcase the influences that I’ve been so fortunate to have that really gave me the confidence to go off in a different direction,” she said. 

Fisher has been teaching at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy since 1989. She holds a dual appointment with the neurology department at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

In addition to teaching, Fisher is the director of the neurologic physical therapy residency program and the director of the Neuroplasticity and Imaging Laboratory. She credited many of the individuals she’s worked with at the division for her success.

“I have found people who are hugely impactful and influential in my career and just surrounded myself with them,” said Fisher, crediting long-time mentors like Gordon, Winstein and Hislop for inspiring her. “Don’t stand back and wait for the great people to inspire you,” she advised the students listening to her G. Maureen Rodgers lecture. “Put yourself in their path.”