Professor Peter Harmer earns Oregon mentor award

by Erin Dahl,

  • Peter Harmer

Peter Harmer doesn’t apologize for having high standards.

When students make mistakes, he points them out. When they complain about their grades, he tells them their low marks were deserved. And when they don’t live up to their potential, he’ll say so.

Harmer admits he’s tough. But that’s because he cares.

“[Students should] expect to be challenged. If not, what’s the point?” Harmer says. “I don’t try to be difficult. I try to do my job, which is to make students better.”

Harmer, an exercise science professor, has stuck to this mantra throughout his 25 years at Willamette. In doing so, he’s helped numerous students pursue their passions for science and medicine.

In recognition of his efforts, Harmer recently received the Medical Research Foundation 2015 Mentor Award, which honors Oregonians who provide outstanding mentorship and leadership in the support of health education and research.

“I truly believe having Peter Harmer as a mentor gave me the confidence, strength and resilience to set the bar high,” says Tansy (Middag) Brown ’01, a physical therapist who recently relocated to Oregon.

“He has remained a professor, advisor and mentor, and I’m thankful to call him my friend.”

Mentoring versus Teaching 

Patricia Alley ’73 defines teachers as people focused on the here and now — from grading papers to issuing assignments. Mentors, she says, prepare students for the future.

“They take an interest in the choices a student makes with an equal degree of empathy and knowledge,” she says. “They give guidance without imposing their views on someone still searching. It’s a delicate craft.”

As the associate director of the Office for Faculty Research & Resources, Alley helps faculty secure grants to promote their work. In doing so, she’s learned a lot about the professors themselves — including Harmer.

Apart from using his expertise to help students discover their interests and potential, she says he never forgets their names.

“Peter sticks with his students years after they graduate, decades in some cases,” she says. “They understand that he’s genuine and that he cares.” 

Lasting Influence 

Brown can still remember the first time she met Harmer. She wanted to take an anatomy class as a freshman, and she went to Harmer — the only professor teaching the course — to ask for permission. 

With a grin and a fair warning about the challenges in store for her, he granted her request. That meeting marked a turning point in Brown’s life.

Harmer inspired her to major in exercise science and to pursue her doctorate in physical therapy through the U.S. Army at Baylor University. Now, she may return to school to earn a second graduate degree in health care administration. 

“Peter always pushed me to excel,” she says. “His insight always seems to lead me to choose the more challenging and rewarding path.”

Stephen Carter ’06, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was similarly inspired.

At Willamette, Carter earned reasonably good grades but was singularly focused on track. He viewed his coursework as mere hurdles to overcome — not as tools to sharpen his critical thinking skills.

Harmer’s guidance helped Carter begin to live up to his true potential, and now he’s investigating the efficacy of simulated-altitude, combined with exercise training, to enhance cardiovascular function among breast cancer survivors.

“Peter told me I had the ‘intellectual horsepower’ to do anything,” Carter says. 

Tracking Success 

Intimidating. Caring. Relatable. Current students use such words to describe Harmer — adding that, perhaps more than anyone, he motivates them to succeed.

“I remember the first time he gave me an ‘A,’” Taylor Ostrander ’16 says. “I called my mom to put the test on our fridge, I was so stoked.”

Ostrander and Brittany Fisher ’16, both exercise science majors, say Harmer’s expectations are high — but not unreasonable. Seeing their papers slathered in red ink can be disheartening, but they know their writing skills are improving as a result.

“He has taught me to never accept anything at face value and to always ask why things are the way they are,” Fisher says. “He is not afraid to push you further.”

Harmer says he enjoys working with his students, which is why he keeps track of them after they graduate. Some became doctors and nurses. Others are researchers, and still more work as physical therapists. 

“I’m not trying to get students to be like me,” Harmer says. “I’m trying to help them develop an interest and an understanding in the way the world works. They continually amaze me with the new roads they take.” 

Bettering People’s Lives

In terms of his own research, Harmer studies health-related issues affecting the aging population.

Working alongside Fuzhong Li, an Oregon Research Institute investigator whom he met when they were both graduate students at the University of Oregon, Harmer studies the effects of exercise on balance, physical functioning and risks of falls.

The research centers on the benefits of a special program of tai ji quan (tai chi) that Li developed.

“It’s low tech, you don’t need equipment and you can do it anywhere,” Harmer says. “People of any age can do this.”

Since 2000, Li and Harmer have garnered more than $15 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Aging and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

One of their studies, “Tai chi and postural stability in patients with Parkinson’s disease,” received national acclaim in 2012 after it appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine. The research revealed that their program reduced balance deficits in people with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease, improved functional capacity and reduced falls.

The American Academy of Neurology recognized these findings as the most important advance in movement disorders research in 2012. Today, about 17 state health departments across the country are sponsoring Li and Harmer’s program. 

“My clients were chair bound. They’d likely sustain serious injuries if they fell, and they were in danger of losing their independence,” Harmer says.

“Now they can move about more freely and have more confidence in their abilities. That’s my driving motivation. My work doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t translate into bettering people’s lives.”