How Alumna Olivia Biller Followed Her Own Path
Many of us are taught to start thinking about our future career paths in adolescence. It may start with your first job in high school, your decision to go to college or your declaration of a major. But we’re often not taught that career paths can look different and there’s not one “correct” path for anyone to take.
Alumna Olivia Biller is the perfect example of someone who took the road less traveled in the healthcare field. A 2022 graduate of the doctorate of occupational therapy program, she’s now a postdoctoral fellow of patient-reported outcomes for Johnson & Johnson.
Instead of using her clinical training to treat patients, Biller is applying her education and knowledge to a role in pharmaceutical research. “I want to approach occupational therapy in a way that’s genuine to me, even if it’s considered non-traditional,” she says.
Biller was drawn to occupational therapy after spending time with the Parks and Recreation Department in New York City. “I worked with students with disabilities as part of a job readiness program,” she says. “What deeply resonated with me is the societal and environmental barriers people with disabilities face. They would have much less trouble participating in society if our world were modeled differently.”
I’m most passionate about pursuing research on what matters most to occupational therapy patients. –Olivia Biller
This experience allowed her to think about occupational therapy in another way.
“There’s so much flexibility in this field,” Biller says. “Occupational therapists aren’t bound to one specialty. Sure, many therapists are found in acute inpatient or outpatient settings, but they can also work in schools, shelters, research centers and more.”
Studying Clinical Outcomes
As a student, Biller completed her doctoral capstone at the Center for Outcomes and Measurement.
“I focused on developing and evaluating clinical outcomes assessments for people living with spinal cord injuries,” she says. “While I appreciate the clinical training I received, I’m most passionate about pursuing research on what matters most to occupational therapy patients.”
This is what led to her role as a post-doctoral fellow at Johnson & Johnson. Biller’s two-year role supports the global scope of drug development.
She and her team help create and implement strategies of measurement for clinical trials to determine whether new drugs are safe and effective for patients. They plan and support research studies that explore how people experience the symptoms and impact of their disease, how it changes over time and the side effects of their medications. They also submit evidence to regulatory agencies to communicate valuable messages about how drugs impact patients.
“While pharmaceutical research isn’t a traditional role for occupational therapists—partially because we don’t prescribe medication—we intimately understand medication management, how drugs impact lives and how to use patient-reported outcome instruments to understand the subjective experience of our clients,” Biller says.
A Focus on Cross-Discipline Communication
Biller gets to work on different disease areas, and her team at Johnson & Johnson touts many different specialties, including epidemiology, statistics, sociology, public health, pharmacy and psychology. She thanks her Jefferson professors for demonstrating the importance of cross-discipline communication.
Don’t be nervous about what you don’t know yet. Everyone has skills and areas of knowledge that need development. Embrace learning as you go. –Olivia Biller
“Research is inherently cross-disciplinary, but my professors also held roles in emerging practice areas that required collaboration to get work done,” Biller says. “For instance, occupational therapists working with unhoused clients must collaborate with case managers. And those working in primary care clinics must collaborate with the primary care physicians.”
Biller also learned to embrace learning from experience. “I don’t have a doctorate in research, but I went for a role in research anyway,” she says.
Her advice for others? “Don’t be nervous about what you don’t know yet,” she says. “Everyone has skills and areas of knowledge that need development. Embrace learning as you go.”