Faculty Spotlight: James M. Smoliga

"I chose to work in the field of physical therapy, albeit via an unusual pathway, because it connects so many things that I love and am passionate about."
Headshot image of James

The path to the field of physical therapy is not always straightforward. James M. Smoliga, DVM, PhD, FACSM, professor and director of research and faculty development for the Tufts DPT Seattle program, brings a unique background in animal science, veterinary medicine, and sports medicine, and has channeled his diverse expertise into innovative research and a passion for evidence-based practice. Hear more about his unique journey and what led him to Tufts. 

All of the Tufts DPT programs have amazing teams behind them! I am continually impressed by the faculty and staff, and how committed they are to providing the very best possible educational experience for our students.

James M. Smoliga, DVM, PhD, FACSM

What courses do you teach?

"I will be teaching coursework in Human Physiology, Evidence Based Practice, Cardiopulmonary Practice, and Complex Patients."

Why did you choose to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy?

"I didn’t! I have an eclectic background. I majored in Animal Science at Rutgers University, and then went on to get my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM degree), which I completed in 2003 at Cornell University. From there, I did my PhD in Sports Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. I had lots of different interests (and still do), and having the combination of a veterinary and human formal education opened a lot of doors for me. My first full-time faculty position was teaching exercise physiology and biomechanics coursework at Marywood University, and then in 2011, I joined High Point University’s Department of Physical Therapy and have continued on that pathway through joining Tufts in 2023. I chose to work in the field of physical therapy, albeit via an unusual pathway, because it connects so many things that I love and am passionate about. It’s a field where human performance, exercise physiology, and biomechanics all come together. The possibilities within physical therapy are endless—one can work with any population across the lifespan, ranging from medically complex patients to elite athletes. So, it means there is always a new area to explore, to help both, individual patients and the entire field of physical therapy."

What are your areas of research and why did you pick them?

"I am the type of person who is interested in lots of different things—as you may tell from my background. I was a collegiate distance runner, and running has been an influential part of my life—so my passion within the field of human sports medicine has always been rooted in track and field. But, I have been fortunate enough to work with all sorts of athletes, and there is always something new to learn and research.

I spent a lot of time in the past working on resveratrol, the 'red wine antioxidant' and over the years came to realize how much I love statistics and research methodology.  This has led me down some unexpected pathways. For instance, that has led me into sports concussion research. As part of all of this, I have found there is a surprising amount of unsound research in the peer-review literature, and many marketing claims related to sports medicine products are also a bit suspect. So, this has inspired me to work on research about evidence-based practice—how can we improve the evidence basis behind physical therapy.

So, I have followed an untraditional model – rather than having a specific research agenda and meticulously following that, I have been fortunate enough to continually find new areas to explore and make contributions to those areas."

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

"If I had to choose, I would say publishing a paper in The BMJ Christmas Issue is one of my top career highlights. For those unfamiliar, The BMJ (formerly known as British Medical Journal) has an annual Christmas edition, which covers some zany research. Even though the publications in that issue are light-hearted, they still must provide an important message to researchers and/or clinicians. The peer-review process for that article was incredibly rigorous—more so than anything else I have published in The BMJ or elsewhere.

That particular paper took on a field of what I would call pseudoscience—something known as 'digit ratio.' There is a wealth of research claiming that the ratio between one’s index finger and one’s ring finger is an indicator of pre-natal testosterone exposure, and that this ratio is predictive of all types of things in life. There’s research claiming it relates to cancer risk and prognosis, various mental health disorders, the risk of getting a speeding ticket, or the likelihood of becoming a firefighter. You name it, somebody has published research connecting digit ratio to it. But, to me, the entire field is full of weak methodology and is the epitome of the reproducibility crisis in science. So, I did an original study examining the relationship between digit ratio and all types outcomes, ranging from plausible (body fat percentage) to completely implausible ('good luck,' as measured by the value of a poker hand randomly drawn from a deck). The results showed exactly what one would expect—you digit ratio is statistically correlated with pretty much anything—including 'good luck.'  The point was that when one uses low-quality research methods and selective reports results, any research finding, no matter how ridiculous it is, is possible. Embracing such pseudoscience has real world effects—for instance, digit ratio has been recommended for determining an athlete’s potential to succeed in various sports (imagine not making the cut for a team because of your digit ratio!) and for determining risk for COVID. 

Why did you choose to teach at Tufts?

"During the early stages of the COVID pandemic, I had to turn to a hybrid model of teaching and realized I absolutely loved it. I found that my style of teaching is actually more effective using the hybrid format—physiology-related material is well-suited for online lectures and activities which students can cover at their own pace. I love technology, so I had a lot of fun creating engaging videos—I actually bought a Hollywood-style green screen and did some fun effects with it. I found the whole system to be really efficient—both for me and for the students. When an opportunity came up to join Tufts and do all of my teaching in the hybrid format, it seemed like a natural fit for me!"

What is a piece of advice you would like to share with Tufts DPT students? 

"Take this opportunity to get a sample of as much as you can within the DPT world—it’s much easier to do that as a student than it is afterwards. Even if you plan on specializing in one area (sports/orthopedics is always popular), get exposure to other patient populations and disciplines within PT.  Even if there is a course that doesn’t initially sound all that interesting, just embrace it and recognize that there is always something to be learned and applied to your future profession. You never know where your career pathway will take you, so take advantage of every single learning opportunity along the way and find out what interests you the very most."