Ellen Herlache has known all along that SVSU was home and she has never ventured far from it. Born just four miles from campus, Ellen grew up with SVSU as part of her life. She recalls attending Family Days as a youngster (Mom, Jackie has worked in the math department since Ellen was in kindergarten), participating in high school track meet in the Ryder Center, taking classes as an undergraduate student, and now working in her dream job as research coordinator and program director for the department of occupational therapy.
She says of attending SVSU as an undergraduate, “I never thought of going anywhere but here.”
And she adds that from the first day of classes, she knew that she wanted a life in occupational therapy. She has the obvious influencers in occupational therapy that have guided and mentored her throughout her studies and career; people like Don Earley, Janet Nagayda and Jean Prast have been instrumental in providing both learning and leadership to Ellen.
A bit surprising is the major influence Ellen received from her experience in the SVSU Writing Center. For the two years she worked with director Diane Boehm, Ellen feels she gained skills and confidence that have served her well in her current role. “With the Writing Center, it took me out of my comfort zone. I was ‘OK’ with my own writing, but telling others how to do it was a challenge. Now as an instructor, I can help my students since so much of what I do is work with students on writing research and communicating with patients and families.” Beyond the fact that the experience boosted her confidence, Ellen also gained academically; in 2001, she was a Braun Writing Award on “Low Vision Rehabilitation” and the role occupational therapy plays in helping people function.
When she graduated from SVSU in 2002, Ellen ventured only briefly away from SVSU. She worked in in-patient rehabilitation at St. Mary’s, and almost immediately began working on her master’s degree. In 2006, associate professor of occupational therapy Janet Nagayda approached Ellen to be a part of a committee serving a partnership between SVSU and the Millet Center, a special needs school in Saginaw County. In the fall 2006, she instructed a neurological assessment class. Soon after, Ellen began working on her doctorate.
In 2007, the OT program went from a “BSOT” (Bachelors of Science in Occupational Therapy) to a required MSOT (masters level) program, where clinical research is a compulsory component. Ellen is not only proud of her role as the research coordinator, but is quick to point out that SVSU’s approach is very unique. While most universities engage students in faculty research, SVSU’s model permits the students to choose their research and then work directly with Ellen. This research goes from concept to presentation (and everything in between, which includes, research refinement, IRB (Institution Review Board) requirements, grant writing, finding participants, writing the manuscript and as Ellen calls them, helping with all of the “oh my gosh” moments).
When asked about her favorite research projects, Ellen is proud of the five student research groups she's worked with whose projects have been accepted for publication in research journals. She also cites a recent project that brought “echolocation” expert Daniel Kish to campus where a Foundation grant allowed SVSU students to research the effectiveness of Kish’s “sound flash” device that tells visually impaired people where objects are by interpreting echoes.
Ellen still gets chills when she tells the story that one youth participant who used the device when walking on campus and could actually sense the flag pole by the Arbury Arts Center; this feat for a totally blind person. "This was the a-ha moment we'd worked a year for. There were many times that we were concerned about our abilities to actually make the project a reality, but in the end, we did it!"
But no story about Ellen Herlache would be complete if it didn’t include a mention of her other love, a four-legged passion named “Cisco.” In addition to her position with SVSU, Ellen is a volunteer field representative for Paws with a Cause and Cisco, is her magnificent partner. Cisco reflects a perfect blend of the two things most important to Ellen --- helping clients in small ways that make a big difference, and giving back.
"By showing students the types of things Cisco is trained to do, I help them to get a greater appreciation for how disabilities can impact everyday life," she explains. "When they learn about all the different things that assistance dogs are trained to do to assist to become more independent, students start to see the impacts of disabilities in a more "concrete" way...this is something that is SO important for students to appreciate, as future occupational therapists!"
Researcher, rehabilitator and volunteer. This is Ellen Herlache. This is SVSU.