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Q&A with University of Alberta researcher, Jaynie Yang

Jaynie Yang has a passion for the complex systems at play in brain and body work that enables humans to walk. A professor and researcher at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine - the only free-standing faculty of rehabilitation in Canada and a research leader in musculoskeletal health, spinal cord injuries and common spinal disorders – she is focused on teaching some people with spinal cord injury how to walk again.

 

Where were you born? I was born in Taipei, Taiwan.

 

Where did you receive your training in physical therapy?  I completed an undergraduate degree in physical therapy at Queen’s University, Kingston, ON.

Jaynie_Yang_patient_smJaynie Yang with an individual undergoing rehab at the University of Alberta

 

 

Why did you want to pursue an education in this field? I liked biology in high school, especially as it relates to the human body.  I was also very interested in people, so the idea of combining those two loves and using physical means to enhance health sounded perfect.

 

Is your professional life what you originally planned when you went to school or have you been diverted?  If yes, what or who inspired that change? It has turned out quite differently than what I originally imagined.  While I enjoyed working as a physical therapist, I also found the work very routine.  I wanted to find out more about the physical therapy treatments, and whether we could improve on what we were doing.  One area that I really enjoyed during my short two years of full-time practice was working with spinal cord injured clients. These individuals inspired me by their many strategies to cope with the devastating injuries, so it is gratifying that after many years of study, I have come full circle to find better ways to restore walking for individuals with spinal cord injury.

What was your first job in research? My first independent research position is my current job.

 

Did you have a mentor? I have been blessed with many mentors over the years, without whom I could not have had the success I have had.  The first was the late Dr. David Winter, who was incredibly supportive. He first gave me the confidence that I could be an independent researcher.   Prior to that, I had no intentions of being one!  My second mentor (who continues to be today) is Dr. Richard Stein.  He made it possible for me to fast-track into the neurosciences.  I have also had many unofficial mentors at the University of Alberta.

 

You can help some people recovering from spinal cord injury to learn to walk again.  How is that possible…what’s involved in that process? The methods I have used so far are based on physical training.  Our participants are all individuals with incomplete spinal cord injury who have some ability to move their legs.  We train them intensively, either on the treadmill or over ground, and assist them as needed in their walking.  For the most part, they are doing all the work.  We have found that such repetitive training can strengthen the motor circuits from the brain, which leads to better control of the muscles and better walking.

 

Jaynie_toddlerJaynie studying how the "automatic stepping response" of a baby shows how the human spinal cord and brain stem controls walking.

I read that you study how babies walk on a treadmill.  How is that helpful? Babies are born at a time when the brain and its pathways to the spinal cord are still very immature.  Yet babies have a strong ‘automatic stepping response’ from the time of birth, which is a type of reflex walking.  I have used this ability to study how the nervous system controls walking-like activity before the brain is mature.  This gives us an idea of how the human spinal cord and brain stem controls walking.  I have found that the automatic stepping in babies is very much like the stepping of other mammals that have complete spinal cord injuries.  Thus, the human spinal cord may not be so different from other mammals, and maybe there will be better ways to harness that ability after spinal cord injury.

 

What’s your greatest challenge? Over all?Juggling all the things that need my attention and not letting anything important drop!  In research, working with human injuries is challenging from a scientific point of view, because the injuries are natural occurrences…each one different from the next.  We need to be very careful in accounting for all the things that could affect the outcome of our research, and we need to have lots of subjects in each study.

Where do you see breakthroughs happening in SCI patient care? Breakthroughs in patient care are not necessarily the huge scientific gains that sometimes happen.  Equally important, though, they are the incremental gains made in research related to acute care and rehabilitation.  I wish there were more breakthroughs in government policy regarding access to rehabilitation after spinal cord injury.  In my view, we know we can do much better, but there are not the funds and perhaps political will to make it happen.

 

You once spent a whole day in a wheelchair to raise awareness and funds for the Canadian Paraplegic Association.  How did that inform your work and life? It was an eye-opener to spend a day in the wheelchair.  I realized that little things I never noticed before -- like the very small changes in grade in a road -- which can be a huge problem.  I also discovered that I get motion sick in the chair!  My experience for just one day does not come close to what it is like to be in a chair all the time, but it certainly gave me a taste of the problems.

With the Rick Hansen Institute, you’ve been involved with a number of initiatives, including the “Access to Clinical Trials Fund”. Yes,the Fund has been extremely important for our projects.  It allowed individuals from outside of Edmonton to participate in our research, by either commuting or relocating for a period of time in Edmonton.  We have had people from all over Alberta participate, which would not have been possible without this fund.

 

Do you have any advice for people thinking about entering the SCI rehabilitation field? Yes: do it.  It’s very rewarding, and you meet some of the most interesting people!

 

 

 

Read Jaynie's One Day quote.