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Deborah Gebhardt, Ph.D. '79, Shatters Boundaries in her Multifaceted Career 

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Terps like to say that they are “fearless”, always pushing “fearlessly forward”. For SPH Dean’s Council member Deborah Gebhardt, Ph.D. ’79, “fearless” means jumping into the action, not always knowing what lies ahead. This trailblazer has spent a lifetime breaking barriers and forging a path of excellence, from early days playing baseball alongside the boys in her Hazleton, Pennsylvania, neighborhood, to founding a company that regularly counsels leaders of the nation’s largest organizations.  

The oldest of four, Gebhardt was competitive and adventurous, ready to lead from the start. That spirit took her beyond the gender norms of the time, and at East Stroudsburg University, she pursued a love of physical education, excelling in swimming and tennis, and then taking her academic pursuits to the University of Arizona for a master’s in kinesiology. The University of Maryland would come a little later.

She wasn’t the only woman fighting for a place on the field. In 1972, the Federal civil rights law Title IX was enacted, legally prohibiting education programs from discriminating on the basis of sex. Gebhardt embraced the transformative era of the early 1970s by coaching the women's tennis and basketball teams at the University of California, Berkeley. Later, in 1974-1975, she coached Purdue University’s first women’s basketball team, which finished third in the Big Ten tournament.

"Teaching isn't just about imparting knowledge; it's about guiding students and athletes toward opportunities that can reshape their entire life trajectory,” Gebhardt said. “One of my athletes went on to compete in the 1980s Olympics by deciding to play handball. She changed the course of her life, showcasing the transformative power of seizing opportunities."

Gebhardt herself continued to seize opportunities in turning to the University of Maryland, earning a doctorate in biomechanics and anatomy in 1979. Since then, she’s been integrating biomechanical and physiological facets of human performance with the ergonomic considerations of the workplace and developing tools to measure physical capacities and injuries related to people’s occupations. Among her notable contributions is a groundbreaking methodology assessing the severity of medical diseases and conditions that may hinder safe and effective job performance.

Within a few years, Gebhardt was turning her unique background into her own venture: Human Performance Systems, helping guide job-related physical and medical requirements for physically demanding jobs. Business flourished, especially after the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, with contracts from Fortune 500 companies, the federal government, and beyond.

In 2015, Gebhardt made a strategic move, selling Human Performance Systems to the nonprofit Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO), where she remains a principal scientist. 

Now in semi-retirement, Gebhardt continues to defy conventions. Knee replacement surgery in 2014 prompted a transition from running to cycling, and then to community service at College Park Bicycles, contributing to the sales aspect of the store. Gebhardt is also the Vice Chair of "Warrior Women Who Give," a program at her alma mater of East Stroudsburg University that empowers women students to create positive change in their opportunities in the workplace. All that, and she serves on the SPH Dean's Council, sharing her knowledge for the good of the School.

Like her cycling, Gebhardt’s SPH commitment travels far. She helped to establish the Gebhardt-Phillips Kinesiology Graduate Student Fund and contributes to the Sally J. Phillips Endowed Dissertation Fellowship in Kinesiology, which supports graduate students in ensuring that financial challenges do not create barriers to education. Also, she established the Gebhardt Endowed Graduate Student Award in Kinesiology to provide merit-based awards for second-year doctoral students in biomechanics and physiology.

Gebhardt's diverse career embodies the public health spirit, making life healthier for people in Maryland and far beyond, forging her own path at every step and coaching others to find their own public health success stories.

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