The next generation of rehab experts

The next generation of rehab experts

Program prepares UF scholars to become leaders in rehabilitation research

By Kathryn Stolarz

Dr. Donovan Lott, a researcher who studies Duchenne muscular dystrophy, works with Tucker Hart. Photo by Jesse S. Jones.

Young boys are told to eat their vegetables so they can grow up to be big and strong.

But boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy don’t get much of a chance to grow up — most don’t survive past their 20s. And most don’t get to be big and strong — their muscles start deteriorating between ages 2 and 6, putting most of them in wheelchairs by their 12th birthdays.

One UF researcher is hopeful that he can help. Donovan Lott, Ph.D., P.T., is pioneering research to find the optimal level of exercise for children with Duchenne to improve their muscle pathology and gait.

Physicians often err on the side of caution and discourage children with the disease from physical activity because their muscles are more susceptible to injury, said Lott, a research assistant professor of physical therapy in the College of Public Health and Health Professions. However, exercise might improve their cardiovascular health and decrease the rate of muscle deterioration, he said. For a young boy who wants more time to play ball with his parent, or at least stand on his own two feet, that’s a big deal.

“If a child is able to walk for one to two years longer before he gets into a wheelchair, that’s a huge thing,” he said.

Lott is carrying out his research through the Rehabilitation Research Career Development Program. He’s one of several occupational and physical therapy scholars at UF and the University of Texas Medical Branch who are in the program. They are training to become independent investigators and leaders in rehabilitation research.

The National Institutes of Health jointly awarded a $4.6 million grant to UF and UTMB to establish the program. Krista Vandenborne, Ph.D., chair of physical therapy and PHHP associate dean for research, and William Mann, Ph.D., chair of occupational therapy, are leading efforts at UF.

The program has a lot to offer its scholars, including three years of 75-percent paid, protected research time, mentor guidance, grant-writing workshops and networking opportunities through an annual conference.

Getting advice from leading experts through the program has been key to Lott’s research. At last year’s conference, Lott met Eric Hoffman, a world-renowned geneticist and neuromuscular disease expert, and got valuable feedback from him throughout the year.

 Program scholar Stacey E. Reynolds, Ph.D., O.T.R./L., an assistant professor in the college’s department of occupational therapy, was excited to have met advisory panel member Mary Schneider at this year’s conference in Gainesville. Schneider, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of few occupational therapists in the world who does animal research like Reynolds..

“The program is a gift. It’s such a great opportunity to have the (protected research) time, the mentorship and the resources that are available at UF,” said Reynolds, who is working to identify what triggers the spectrum of behavioral differences in children with autism.

Mark Bishop, Ph.D., P.T., an assistant professor in the department of physical therapy, is studying how patients’ expectations can affect their perceptions of pain and healing in physical therapy. He said he’s grateful that the program has connected him with internationally renowned scholars who have offered him valuable feedback on his research.

While Reynolds and Lott are in the first phase of the program, Bishop is in phase two, which means he has transitioned to independent funding through his own NIH research grants.

“These are all people who are go-getters, hard workers, and they’re ultimately going to make a huge impact in the field,” Vandenborne said.