Cristina Colón-Semenza is interested in making a difference through clinical work as a physical therapist, teacher, and researcher. She has dedicated her career to improving outcomes for patients and diversity in the field itself.
Colón-Semenza was attracted to a career in physical therapy because, unlike many other fields of medicine, it is an active and ongoing collaboration between practitioners and patients.
“To me it was exciting to be able to interact with an intervention that can give the patient some control back in an otherwise uncontrollable situation,” Colón-Semenza says.
Colón-Semenza says one of the most rewarding aspects of her work is seeing how quickly physical therapy can improve patients’ mobility.
It was exciting to be able to interact with an intervention that can give the patient some control back in an otherwise uncontrollable situation — Cristina Colón-Semenza
“It was really exciting to see how an intervention can make immediate changes,” Colón-Semenza says. “It’s really gratifying to see how quickly we can make a positive impact.”
Colón-Semenza joined the Department of Kinesiology in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources as an assistant professor last fall. She previously worked at UConn from 2003 to 2014 as a physical therapist at the Nayden Rehabilitation Clinic at UConn Health. The Clinic is primarily focused on treating patients, but also provides instruction for physical therapy and athletic training students.
Working as a physical therapist, Colón-Semenza began to realize how many unanswered questions there were in the relatively young field that could only be addressed through research. She decided to gain the skills she would need to help answer her questions by going back to school for her Ph.D.
Saying Yes to Exercise
Colón-Semenza received her Ph.D. from Boston University. Her dissertation focused on how individuals make the decision to “say yes” to exercise. She found those who rated higher on an apathy scale were less likely to engage in physical activity. She also found that those who had higher anticipation of pleasure were more willing to exercise.
While at Boston University, Colón-Semenza’s work focused on behavioral strategies to help motivate individuals to exercise by using mobile health technology and developing personalized plans with patients that take their specific goals and potential barriers into account.
Colón-Semenza now works on using exercise to assist in managing Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease affects neurotransmitters implicated in motor and non-motor impairments. This results in impaired movement as well as decreased motivation to exercise, despite the benefits.
One part of her dissertation looked at the use of peer support for this group. She found individuals with Parkinson’s disease who were engaging in regular physical activity could act as peer coaches. Peer pairs then gave each other challenges, became FitBit friends, and met up virtually to share experiences. This friendly competition in a supportive community led to those who had peer support increasing their physical activity by more than 30%.
During her clinical work, Colón-Semenza established a weekly exercise group for people living with Parkinson’s disease. The group focused on finding community and strength through connections with others. This group has now been running for nearly a decade, most recently under the direction of physical therapist, Colleen Bonadies.
Given the promising evidence that exercise interventions may slow Parkinson’s disease progression, in addition to symptom management, makes these kinds of interventions critical.
“This was huge and impactful and I wanted to be part of the process of allowing more people access to this knowledge and improving disease management,” Colón-Semenza says.
Homecoming to UConn
Colón-Semenza joined UConn as a faculty member in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is not quite the homecoming she had in mind.
“My colleagues in the program have been very welcoming and creative in how they’ve been keeping in touch with us,” Colón-Semenza says. “As scientists we’re naturally problem solvers. The pandemic pushed us a little harder to be creative and innovative.”
After an article came out in the Journal of the American Medical Association calling for the need to adopt exercise to benefit mental health, Colón-Semenza advocated for the role of physical therapists on an interprofessional healthcare team to support those living with a mental health condition.
Colón-Semenza worked with the Connecticut delegation at the American Physical Therapy Association’s House of Delegates to develop a clear position statement on the role of physical therapists in managing mental health.
This initiative is especially timely as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many people to struggle with mental health as they are cut off from loved ones and regular activities.
“We know exercise is effective at managing depression,” Colón-Semenza says. “And it’s very timely with everything going on with COVID-19.”
Now at UConn, Colón-Semenza hopes to extend this research to more diverse populations. Much of the research on the benefits of physical activity for people with Parkinson’s disease has been done with predominantly white, highly educated patients. Colón-Semenza wants to expand research of these techniques for underrepresented groups like Latinx and Black communities.
“We do not represent the demographics of the country in our research and in our profession and we haven’t moved forward fast enough or far enough,” Colón-Semenza says.
We do not represent the demographics of the country in our research and in our profession and we haven’t moved forward fast enough or far enough — Cristina Colón-Semenza
While teaching at UConn, she realized the student body and participants in research studies were, by and large, not representative of state and national demographics.
Colón-Semenza, who is Puerto Rican, says having diverse medical professionals and research participants is critical to building trust among groups who have historically been discriminated against or excluded from the medical establishment.“When I see I am not represented, or my family members are not represented in the research, it can make someone wonder if this is the best intervention for me or my family’s needs,” Colón-Semenza says.
Because distrust in the medical establishment is a significant barrier for people of color to access healthcare, Colón-Semenza hypothesizes that using peers from the same ethnic group dealing with the same condition can help build that trust.
This summer, Colón-Semenza is running a study applying her program for peer-support in exercise for people with Parkinson’s disease to Latinx and Hispanic patients. The mostly virtual program will hopefully encompass a geographically diverse range of participants as well.
“We’re hoping peer support can be a bridge to the healthcare system and effective disease management,” Colón-Semenza says.
Throughout her career, Colón-Semenza seems to find a way to “bridge the gaps” to improve quality of care for patients and communities, opportunities for students, and knowledge with fellow researchers.
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