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Learning Never Stops: Dr. Jessica Pan Conklin's story

Life experience and curiosity guided Jessica Pan Conklin, Ph.D., in her academic journey and professional career as a scientist-practitioner in neuropsychology.

Long before Jessica Pan Conklin, Ph.D., became a research neuropsychology fellow at Shepherd Center, she was a child trying to help her immigrant parents navigate the U.S. healthcare system.

Dr. Conklin was five years old when she, her brother, and her parents left their home in Guangzhou, China, to move to the United States. The family settled in Boston’s tight-knit Chinatown community, where most neighbors, shopkeepers, and family doctors could speak the Pan family’s Cantonese. While her parents never became proficient in English, Dr. Conklin did. As she grew older, she became her parents’ liaison to Western medicine when they were referred to specialists beyond Chinatown’s borders.

“What I noticed, even at that age, was that my parents were uncomfortable and hesitant about going to Western-style doctors,” Dr. Conklin recalls. “I think what it came down to was they just had very different understandings of what health is, what illness means — what symptoms can represent and how they can best be treated.

“They thought the tenets of traditional Chinese medicine matched their values and beliefs. Western medicine did not. So, when they needed specialized care, there was always this fundamental mismatch that put a barrier between them and the doctors — and the care they needed. And often, Western practitioners didn’t understand or appreciate my parents’ perspectives or the family dynamics at play.”

Those experiences stayed with Dr. Conklin as she grew older. They led to questions that guided her academic journey and professional career as a scientist-practitioner in neuropsychology. Those questions eventually led Dr. Conklin to create a research proposal at Shepherd Center exploring how culture impacts the rehabilitation and recovery of Asian people and Asian Americans following traumatic injury and illness. In the fall of 2022, she received a prestigious Switzer Research Fellowship for her work, one of just eight awarded nationwide.

Dr. Conklin’s research is both vital and timely. Asian Americans have some of the lowest service-seeking care rates in the U.S. and, simultaneously, are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. — yet one of the least studied.

“At its heart,” Dr. Conklin says, “this work was intended to make space for, and capture the stories of, patients and families at Shepherd Center who fit this identity and want to share what their experiences have been like navigating medical systems after their injury or illness.”

Dr. Conklin went into the research wondering if she would get more stories similar to her parents’. What she discovered was a much broader, more complex range of lived experiences, especially among younger generations of immigrants. Similar to Dr. Conklin’s parents, some families found comfort in receiving care from Asian or Asian American providers; others, more acclimated to American culture, had more nuanced concerns. Many families wanted to learn how to take care of their loved ones as quickly as possible — sometimes to help preserve their family member’s dignity and privacy when it came to more intimate care.

One of the most impactful findings was about the importance of Asian American family structures, where each family member often has a specific role  — and the disruption and guilt that can affect those family dynamics when a traumatic injury requires extended rehabilitation. Many patients Dr. Conklin interviewed worried they were weighing their families down instead of helping carry them forward.

“Now, we’re hoping to identify and understand the common elements of these family stories so that we can sharpen our skills as providers and offer more customized treatments for these families,” Dr. Conklin shares. “The goal is higher levels of care engagement and treatment adherence — sticking with the care they need.”

She cites the culture of learning and humility at Shepherd Center as a driver for constantly improving approaches to care.

“The nature of our work requires us to be curious,” Dr. Conklin says. “The best clinicians are the ones who have research questions, who want to better understand why we do what we do — and the way we do it. How we interact with patients, develop treatment plans, and prepare patients to return home.

“Asking questions is what allows Shepherd Center clinicians to be exceptional at what they do. You’re always thinking, ‘How do we do this better? How do we keep improving?"

Written by Phillip Jordan


About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.