Phil Sizer Honored for for Research Excellence

His research into patient pain management and student success at TTUHSC earned him the Texas Tech University System's highest faculty honor.

Phil Sizer knows about pain — the pain a body struggles with after injury and the kind students struggle through as they finish an advanced degree.

Sizer addresses both types in his roles at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center where he’s associate dean for research in the School of Health Professions and a faculty member in the School of Medicine. He also has a medical pain fellowship in anesthesiology.

Just as pain is hard to ignore, his work in the field hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Sizer was named a President’s Distinguished Professor and was recently awarded the Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Research Award — the most prestigious honor given to faculty members throughout the Texas Tech University System.

He received $5,000 and a medallion for excellence, funded by annual membership gifts to the Chancellor’s Council — a giving society supporting the priorities of the chancellor that impacts student lives through scholarships, recognizes faculty achievement and encourages excellence across all four system universities.

“It caught me off guard. I was blessed and shocked by it. There are a lot of worthy people,” said Sizer.

Asked why he thinks he was honored, he replied, “Because we’re trying to advance science in helping people with disabling injuries.”

After a pause, he added another reason: how the university is becoming better at developing health care professionals who are both clinicians and researchers.

Training researchers

“It’s easy to train somebody who wants a career in research,” said Sizer.

“But when you take somebody who’s a clinician — who doesn’t know the first thing about research or doesn’t have a strong experience in it — and try to help them transform into a collaborative researcher, that’s a big task.”

Sizer cites common roadblocks that discourage clinicians from research. Many are too busy or don’t see a financial reward. Others have supervisors who don’t value research or won’t give allow clinicians the time needed for investigation.

“So getting them to a place where they can be successful in research is a real challenge, and I think we’ve gained some momentum in how to do that. Perhaps that was a reason I was nominated,” he said.

‘We try and help them overcome’

Inspiring students to finish their advanced degree is another area where TTUHSC continues to make progress, and Sizer’s been part of those efforts.

“I help them get through tough times and help them persist when they don’t want to,” he said, citing a national 65 percent attrition rate in terminal degree education — 80 percent for women.

“They start, but they don’t finish,” he said, adding Texas Tech has been able to do better than the national average.

“Everyone has a hardship in their research education process,” Sizer said. “There are so many different parts along the trail where people fail. We try and help them to overcome that.”

Many of the students Sizer works with are working to put themselves through school. Balancing a job, classes and studying — often with the demands of a family — are challenging.

“So they get frustrated, they don’t have sleep, they get tired and their research isn’t working out. We find ways to help them persist,” he said.

Students receive ongoing assistance and counseling, he said, plus they’re given a process to help manage the stress of staying on track for graduation.

“We’ve developed a specific framework. We give them milestones and say ‘if you do these things it will get you to the target faster,’” he said.

Students are also connected with fellow students who act as mentors and add another level of support.

“They learn from each other. We give them lots of opportunities to participate in research…which helps them build their confidence,” Sizer said.

One such opportunity is the Ph.D. program in physical therapy, which focuses on academic research. Sizer serves as a senior faculty member and a lab director in the program.

“Those Ph.D. students can walk out with six-to-eight publications under their belt, which is a lot because they’re participating in all these fun projects that kind of get them down the trail. So they get more than the minimum amount — they get deep exposure. It’s been a lot of fun to see that work…the ones who want to do it love it and they want to dig in deeper and learn from it,” he said.

Another is the Doctor of Science in Physical Therapy degree program, which Sizer founded 16 years ago and still directs today. The innovative program is designed for practicing physical therapists who live all over the world — coursework is done online and students also come to campus for a one-week session.

Reducing and recovering from pain

“We research the effect of pain and injury on sensorimotor control and how we can redirect that,” Sizer explained about the work of his lab.

“We give them strategies to reduce their pain and help them control [their body movements] better to prevent further injury and help them recover.”

Another area of his research is using cadaver tissue to better understand how to treat pain, optimize movement and prevent injury.

He’s shared that knowledge around the world, lecturing at more than 400 national international conferences in musculoskeletal pathoanatomy, diagnostics and management, sensorimotor control and pain science.

In the classroom, Sizer teaches in four areas that include sensorimotor control and learning, musculoskeletal rehabilitation, pain science and research methodology.

Through all of his work, Sizer continues to see patients as a manipulative therapist.

“I work with people with muscular-skeletal problems and pain management. We do a lot of diagnostics, muscular-skeletal management, some sports medicine. I work with some athletes, some pedestrians as well — I see a gamut of patients,” he said.

Decades of improvements

In almost 30 years at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Sizer has seen a lot of change.

He’s happy to see more collaboration between different departments and schools.

The importance of faculty research has also grown.

“We were a teaching institution for the longest time…We’ve raised some great clinicians. But now we’re advancing in our research, and one of the things that’s exploding here at the university — across the whole system — is the role for innovation,” he said.

The last change he’s been excited to see is international learning opportunities.

“We’re not just confined to Lubbock County or Texas. This university is growing in its visibility,” he said.

For students, Sizer said improving facilities and TTUHSC’s ability to hire more “rock star” faculty has been a big improvement.

“For the longest time it was hard to hire people to Lubbock, but now it’s growing. The whole university system is exploding, and leadership has been really astute at helping them to craft that growth.”

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