Carnegie Mellon University

Alyssa Montanaro

Alyssa Montanaro (S 2012)

Chemistry and Psychology double major, budding Physical Therapist


Forging Her Own Path

Alyssa Montanaro had a plan. She loved science and chemistry, health and medicine—so she set her sights on a career in health research. When she arrived at Carnegie Mellon, she decided to major in chemistry and loved every minute of it. As a sophomore she started an undergraduate research project and had a revelation. She enjoyed the hands-on, problem solving aspect of research, and realized that she wanted to apply her researcher skills to people, not molecules.

“I’m very much a people person, and I realized that I wanted a career where I could do something healthcare related while working with and helping people,” said Montanaro, who will graduate in May with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Psychology.

She looked to her advisor, Professor Karen Stump, for guidance.

“After listing everything I wanted in a profession, Professor Stump told me to look into physical therapy,” Montanaro said. “So I started shadowing and I loved it. I feel like physical therapy is using the scientific method to help people.”

Montanaro’s passion for physical therapy has grown since the first day she observed a physical therapist in action at Shadyside hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. During winter break of her junior year, she shadowed physical therapists at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., where she worked with children who had a variety of disabilities — including a little girl with so many hip problems that she couldn’t sit.

“I was helping these kids who had no control over what was going on, and that’s when it hit me that this is exactly what I want to do. I want to work with kids and people with disabilities and diseases,” she said.

To help achieve her goal, Montanaro spent a summer in Brasov, Romania, volunteering in a hospice for children with major disabilities and terminal illnesses. Most of her physical therapy patients were in wheelchairs and suffered from maladies ranging from kidney disorders and tumors in their spines to muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis.

Although she loved the work, Montanaro admits that the cases can be emotionally draining. But her experiences have only made her more resolute in her plans for the future. She’ll start a 33-month doctorate program in physical therapy at Northwestern this fall. After grad school, she plans to become board certified in pediatric physical therapy.

None of this is what she intended when she set foot on the CMU campus four years ago. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think it’s really important to explore anything you might be interested in while you’re in college,” she said. “And now, here I am. I’m an oddball going in to physical therapy school. I’m not your typical chemistry major. I’m really not your typical person. But I feel like Carnegie Mellon really prepared me for physical therapy school,” she added. “I’ve learned to be a critical thinker, to think on my feet and solve problems when things aren’t going the way I thought they would. And that’s all part of the job of being a medical professional.”

Now that’s a plan.