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Merging Mechanics and Human Movement: Q&A With Ozell Sanders, PhD, New Diversity Fellow

Published on February 25, 2019 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 8 months ago


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Breakthroughs occur when great minds from a variety of backgrounds join together in the spirit of innovation. At Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, we see diversity as a key driver of achievement and crucial when the accomplishments at stake have the potential to change, and even save, children’s lives. Among the ways CHOP demonstrates its commitment to diversity in research is the Postdoctoral Fellowship for Academic Diversity. Three new diversity fellows recently joined the CHOP research community, bringing the wealth of their unique education, training, and life experiences. In a three-part Q&A series, we’ll learn more about these scholars, their areas of expertise and interest, and even a little bit about how they spend their hard-earned downtime.

Our first featured fellow is Ozell Sanders, PhD. After a mentor helped Dr. Sanders find a niche — rehabilitation medicine — that merged his interests of engineering and human movement, he mapped a path toward helping pediatric patients for whom the impact of his work could last a lifetime. 

Tell us about your background and what compelled you to apply for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity?

My background is in mechanical engineering, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland (UMD) Baltimore County. I had an interest in understanding human movement and human science from an early age, and I did internships at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that started me down that path, although I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. My first college adviser helped bridge these two disciplines I really like —   engineering with the biology and human component  —  which led me to an interesting field: physical rehabilitative medicine.

I went to UMD Medical School in Baltimore for my PhD. The program was a blend of neuroscience, kinesiology, engineering, and biomechanics, because you utilize all of those concepts to answer research questions. My adviser there had a research emphasis on motor control and rehabilitation. That left a strong impression on me to continue down that path in rehab, and undertaking my PhD further cemented my love for the field.

I had an interest in working with kids, so I did some research as to where the leading pediatric research was being done. Given the world-renowned research being done at CHOP; its proximity to Baltimore, where I live; the opportunities available here for postdocs; the fact that CHOP had the research I want to do and the labs and facilities already in place; and then finding out there was a fellowship specifically for promoting diversity in science and research? It seemed I was being pointed in this direction.

What does diversity in research and science mean to you?

There’s not a lot of representation for minorities and people of color at this level of academia. It’s important because if there are not enough people in these fields you can relate to, if you don’t see women, African Americans, or Hispanics in bioengineering, or doing research in these fields, it’s hard to recruit and attract younger talent because they don’t see those role models.

Not everyone has gone through the same life challenges or experiences. Their household structure, the resources they had available to them growing up, are all going to be different from person to person, and that has a big influence on how we tackle problems. When research fields are populated with people of the same demographic or mindset, it’s hard to come up with new solutions to problems. Perspective from different groups who have gone through different experiences helps implement new ideas.

For example, I’m working on a gaming task for my current study, and the idea came from a game I liked to play as a kid. We need to promote a task that involves the upper extremities, implements a reach and an action, and I thought, whack-a-mole incorporates all those movements. There’s a goal, a target you have to hit, and it would be a perfect game to implement for this study. I had the experience and knowledge to bridge those two things together, but that kind of insight is lost, if you don’t allow creativity from a diverse group.

What are some research projects that you’re excited about?

Aside from the gaming project I mentioned, I’m involved with a project looking at neural correlates of rehabilitative therapy in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Rehabilitation therapies delivered during the early years of life are critical to maximize developmental trajectories and functions in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. There is a wide variability in response to rehabilitation, and neither patient characteristics such as age or type of brain injury, nor treatment characteristics such as dose, are predictive of individual response.

The goal is to study the development and rehabilitation of motor disability in infants and young children with cerebral palsy. My involvement in this line of research is in the development of a novel interactive motor task that can be done during imaging via magnetoencephalography. This task will aide in the understanding the progression of motor development and help distinguish between typical and atypical trajectories of development and categorize deficits early on. If we can see these deficits at an early enough age, we can implement rehabilitation interventions that will help them in the long run.

In addition, we’re looking at the use of wireless inertial sensors in a pediatric population for gait analysis and movement detection. Much of this research has been done in adults and older children, but not as much in the younger population when the brain is still ripe for plastic changes and the long-term benefits could be more impactful. The validation of these sensors for this age group could be useful in assessing kids as they function and play in a natural environment while wearing the technology.

What inspired you to focus on rehabilitation medicine for children, and what do you hope to achieve in your research?

I’ve always liked working with kids, and have done a lot of tutoring, mentoring through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and coaching. For me, it makes sense to help someone early in life get to where they need to be. I enjoy the energy, the environment working with kids, the happiness they bring with their innocence and natural excitement, and I wanted to see how I could help on that end of the age spectrum. I think there’s a deficit in research and funding in this particular area, and I feel these patients will benefit if I can do my part to bring more attention to topics and tackle challenges that aren’t being looked at thoroughly. It’s become even more important for me as I recently became a father.

When you’re not working, do you have a favorite pastime, spot to relax, enjoy a meal, or be active?

I don’t have a lot of downtime, between work and my commute. There is one place that reminds me of the Mount Vernon Market Place (a hangout and eatery in Baltimore). Near Penn’s campus, there’s a building with little merchants — not chain restaurants — called Franklin’s Table Food Hall. They have great pizza.