Stephanie DeLuca, assistant professor and co-director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC Neuromotor Research Clinic, was selected to receive the 2019 Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Outstanding Research Mentor Award.

She will receive the award at the VTCSOM Medical Student Research Symposium on March 8. The public is welcome to attend the event or tune into the livestream. It will be held in the auditorium of the medical school, located at 2 Riverside Circle in Roanoke, Virginia.

The school’s research domain team collected nominations from current students and alumni, looking for faculty who exhibit commitment to the mentorship of medical students in their research. Students and alumni nominated individuals who provided clear expectations and high standards for students to conduct original hypothesis-driven research effectively and provide opportunities for professional growth.

DeLuca, a developmental psychologist who also holds faculty appointments in the VTCSOM and the Virginia Tech College of Science, has been a Fralin Biomedical Research Institute faculty member for six years. She develops neurorehabilitation treatment techniques for both children and adults. In collaboration with Sharon Ramey, a professor at the research institute and co-director of the Neuromotor Research Clinic, DeLuca developed a pediatric constraint-induced movement therapy protocol that has proven successful for treating young patients with neuromotor impairments, such as cerebral palsy.

“Dr. DeLuca has pioneered the implementation of this important therapy for children whose lives will be forever changed by her team’s care,” said Michael Friedlander, founding executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “She is also a scientific innovator who has translated findings from basic research on brain plasticity to health care delivery. Her scientific acumen, passion, and dedication to help children achieve their full potential are very much embedded in the motto of Virginia Tech – Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). She is also one of the most hands-on, committed, and effective mentors of students who I have had the pleasure of working with and a very appropriate recipient of this recognition from the students.”

“In my lab, we challenge many of the preconceptions about rehabilitation, about neuro-impairments, and sometimes about children themselves. In fact, we cross-cut all of those things because I believe society holds many misconceptions about the possibilities children with disabilities hold,” DeLuca said. “When medical students are in my lab, I want them to think about why we are challenging them. They don’t necessarily need to build a career on their research projects, but medicine is at its best when you are constantly challenging preconceptions. I want them to learn that.”

Over the course of her short tenure at the research institute, DeLuca has mentored seven VTCSOM students in their research projects. All VTCSOM students are required to conduct original, hypothesis-driven research that spans the four-year curriculum.

Watch video below about the research project by VTCSOM fourth-year student Omar Salman in DeLuca's lab:

“When I first met Dr. DeLuca and we discussed potential projects, it soon became clear that she endeavored not only to give me a meaningful project, but to sharpen my skills as a researcher,” said Tien Nguyen, a second-year student at VTCSOM. “When I attended my first constraint-induced movement therapy session, I expected to sit in a corner and observe, but Dr. DeLuca immediately encouraged me to participate in interacting with the child, knowing that I was able to help her in her task of improving the child’s limb function. It is these qualities, including her passion for each day of work, that make me admire her as a researcher and a person.”

Second-year student Miranda Gerrard contacted DeLuca while she was still an undergraduate at the University of Virginia to discuss potential research projects if she were to one day enroll at VTCSOM. Gerrard wanted to test the therapy developed by DeLuca abroad in a developing country. At first, the project did not look feasible, but just last summer, the pair was able to travel to Vietnam.

“Dr. DeLuca and her lab do incredible work. They publish cutting-edge research. They contribute to ever-expanding foundations of knowledge in neuroscience and cognition and therapy. Yet they hardly do as much for the sake of any of that,” Gerrard said. “They do it for the precious smiles on kids’ faces as they wiggle their fingers for the first time and for the parents that are overjoyed and relieved when their precious children feed themselves for the first time. THAT is why I am proud to be involved.”

Another student approached DeLuca with an interest in pediatric neurology. DeLuca sent her some of her papers to review and see if she could find a topic of interest to pursue for her project. “As I read the papers she sent me, I found myself becoming curious about mirror box therapy and the role of the mirror neuron system in motor function in these children with hemiparesis. I told her my simple questions and ideas, and she helped me to create a project of my own that delved into my research interests while also being able to work with this patient population,” said Vaishnavi Sridhar, a second-year student. “I am so grateful that she gave me the time to explore my interests and engage my curiosity, as well as for believing in my project ideas and helping me to create a feasible hypothesis.”

Nguyen, Gerrard, and Sridhar nominated DeLuca for the award, along with other VTCSOM students.

“I enjoy watching students in my lab change and become professionals, gaining the ability to look at things in different ways,” DeLuca said. “Students are not just the next generation. In my own work, they are the ones who will make a difference in the health care arena. I want my research to be recognized in the research arena, but they (the students) will be the ones to decide if it will be used and make a change in the system, that’s my ultimate goal.”

DeLuca received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.