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VA Researchers Who Served: Karen Lohmann Siegel

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VA Office of Research and Development

July 29, 2020

  Karen Lohmann Siegel, a Veteran of the U.S. Public Health Service, is the deputy director of the Rehabilitation Research & Development Service in VA’s Office of Research and Development.

Karen Lohmann Siegel, a Veteran of the U.S. Public Health Service, is the deputy director of the Rehabilitation Research & Development Service in VA’s Office of Research and Development.

Karen Lohmann Siegel, a Veteran of the U.S. Public Health Service, is the deputy director of the Rehabilitation Research & Development Service (RR&D) in VA’s Office of Research and Development. RR&D aims to advance scientific knowledge and foster innovations to maximize the functional independence of Veterans and their quality of life. Before joining VA in 2013, she served for nearly 28 years as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS), reaching the rank of captain. She began her USPHS career in clinical physical therapy, before focusing on research and research management. She has published 38 peer-reviewed papers, including some on the impact of mobility impairments on disability. Her USPHS honors include the Surgeon General’s Exemplary Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and Crisis Response Service Awards.



What motivated you to join the military?

I think it was genetically predetermined at birth. My father served for 30 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, and my grandfather served in the U.S. Army. When my sister traced our family genealogy, she found many ancestors who served dating all the way back to the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War. The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and its mission of protecting, promoting, and advancing the health and safety of the nation were a great fit for me and my experience in physical therapy and rehabilitation research.



What inspired your research career?

From an early age, I was curious and asked lots of questions, maybe too many if you talk to my family and friends. I became interested in biomedical research during a high-school summer science program at the National Institutes of Health in a laboratory that studied infectious neurodegenerative disorders, such as mad cow disease. My enthusiasm for research grew while studying physical therapy at Washington University in St. Louis when I participated in a combined clinical-research rotation and published my first peer-reviewed manuscript. Later while on active duty, I earned a master’s degree in biomechanics at the University of Maryland. A career in research has been a great way to fulfill my thirst for knowledge while serving others.



Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?

Capt. William Fromherz was my first and primary mentor. He sadly passed away in the prime of his life and career. USPHS therapists created the William Fromherz award in memory of his career contributions and accomplishments that so positively impacted the programs to which he was assigned, the physical therapy profession he represented, and the USPHS Commissioned Corps he so proudly served. The greatest honor of my career was to receive this award upon nomination from my colleagues. I continue to strive to meet the high personal and professional standards he exemplified.

  In 2005, Karen Lohmann Siegel (standing second from right) led one of several U.S. Public Health Service teams that delivered health care to Florida communities that were affected by Hurricane Wilma.
In 2005, Karen Lohmann Siegel (standing second from right) led one of several U.S. Public Health Service teams that delivered health care to Florida communities that were affected by Hurricane Wilma.

In 2005, Karen Lohmann Siegel (standing second from right) led one of several U.S. Public Health Service teams that delivered health care to Florida communities that were affected by Hurricane Wilma.



When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.

Before joining VA in 2013, I served as a commissioned officer in the USPHS for nearly 28 years. My assignments at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were mainly research-related. I focused on the generation, synthesis, and application of research knowledge to improve the health and safety of U.S. citizens.

At NIH, I did research in a motion-capture laboratory to understand the effects of functional limitations, such as muscle weakness in walking, and strategies to minimize disability. I managed systematic reviews at AHRQ that synthesized published research to inform patients, health care providers, payers, and policymakers on the evidence base for health care. At the FDA, I started and led a laboratory to inform regulatory decision-making by studying how the interaction between people and medical devices influences medical device effectiveness. Concurrent USPHS assignments included responding to public health emergencies and serving as chief therapist officer. I also provided discipline-focused advice to the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General and leadership to all USPHS physical therapists, occupational therapists, audiologists, and speech language pathologists.



What kinds of research have you been involved in? How has it impacted Veterans?

As the deputy director of Rehabilitation Research and Development (RR&D), I no longer do research. Instead, I create opportunities for other researchers to generate new knowledge. RR&D supports clinical, preclinical, and applied rehabilitation research for translation into clinical practice to restore, replace, or return Veterans’ daily function to improve their quality of life. We support research on many of the most prevalent motor, sensory, and psychological disabilities affecting Veterans, including traumatic brain injury, PTSD, spinal cord injury, pain, limb loss, hearing loss, arthritis, and age-related functional decline.



Did your military experience inspire you to pursue a career in VA research? Is your military experience connected in some way to your role in VA research?

Absolutely. As my uniformed services career crept closer to the 30-year mark, I considered other ways to continue serving my country. I knew of the VA research program through the Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development, my service on VA’s RR&D merit review panels, and my review of VA-sponsored rehabilitation device applications submitted to the Food and Drug Administration. VA’s Office of Research and Development seemed like the perfect setting where my research expertise could meaningfully contribute toward advancing the RR&D mission to improve Veterans’ functional independence, quality of life and participation in their lives and community.



How do you feel about the possibility of making life better for Veterans through your work with research?

The privilege to improve the lives of Veterans through research is why I joined RR&D and the reason I look forward to coming to work every day. RR&D supports innovative research with the clear potential to dramatically advance the rehabilitative health care of Veterans. For example, RR&D researchers are expanding the way Veterans who use wheelchairs can interact with others and their surroundings; incorporating a sense of touch into a prosthetic hand; using brain signals to restore a Veteran's ability to communicate and carry out everyday tasks; and exploring additional ways robotic exoskeletons may improve Veterans’ mental, social, and physical health.



Does being a Veteran give you a greater emotional tie to the work you’re doing or more insight into Veterans’ needs?

I value the opportunity to work at VA and honor the service of all Veterans with disabilities through the research we support. My family and I also owe a debt of gratitude to VA for the care my father-in-law received from the compassionate staff of the VA Maryland Health Care System at the end of his life. My work at VA is one way I can show my appreciation for his care.



Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success? What motivational tips would you share?

The core values of the USPHS Commissioned Corps are leadership, excellence, integrity, and service. I strive to exemplify the definition of integrity put forth by author C.S. Lewis: “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” These values have guided my actions throughout my career and have been key to my success.



What’s the next step for you in your VA career?

I aim to ensure that RR&D continues to support the highest-quality Veteran-centric rehabilitation research and that it promotes the translation of research results into optimal rehabilitation care for Veterans.


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