Inside the mind of researcher Mike Pavol

“There is a critical need for effective ways of preventing falls and fractures among older adults, as these can severely impact both health and quality of life. My research is helping to address this need,” Mike says.

Biomechanics-Lab-headerExercise and Sport Science Associate Professor Mike Pavol came to Oregon State in 2002 and has held positions as an associate professor, assistant professor and director of the Biomechanics Laboratory. He is a researcher in the CPHHS’ Center for Healthy Aging Research. He previously served as a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at Northwestern University Medical School. He earned a master’s degree in Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a PhD from The Ohio State University.

What made you decide to get into this field of study?

“I was working as an industrial automation engineer and decided that I wanted a career that would have more of an impact on helping people. As a runner who was frequently getting injured, my interests were drawn toward biomechanics, as it would allow me to apply my background in engineering to keeping people healthy and active. So, I went back to school to get my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.”

Exercise and Sport Science Associate Professor Mike Pavol.

What does your current research entail?

“My research is in two main areas: 1) preventing falls and fractures in older adults and 2) improving the safety of assisted transfers of people with mobility difficulties. In the first area, we have most recently been studying the forces that different resistance-training exercises place on the hip and spine. The loss of bone with aging is a major risk factor for fractures, and although some exercise programs have been found to slow this bone loss as a result of the forces they apply to bone, little is known as to which exercises for older adults are the most beneficial in this regard. We are therefore performing biomechanical analyses to estimate the forces acting on women’s bones as they perform selected exercises in our lab. Other of my recent studies in this area have investigated the effects of experience, practice and muscle strength on one’s ability to recover balance.

In my second area of research, we are currently conducting a preliminary study of the techniques used and risk factors faced in transferring a person with mobility difficulties between a wheelchair and an automobile. Transfers pose a hazard to both the transferor and the transferee, and transfers in spaces that restrict one’s movements may be the most dangerous. An automobile poses such a confined space. There has, however, been little or no research aimed at reducing the risk of injury during assisted transfers to or from an automobile. We’re beginning to address this issue by filming the techniques that experienced individuals use as they transfer either a person with simulated mobility difficulties or a rescue dummy between a wheelchair and different automobiles.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“My interest in falls prevention was sparked by my Ph.D. advisor, who was conducting research in that area. It was a topic that I had never really thought much about, but as I learned more about it, I realized what an important and complex problem it was. My interest in the use of exercise for fracture prevention was later sparked by the research being conducted in the Bone Research Lab here at OSU. Finally, my interest in transfers arose when an OSU faculty member in Civil Engineering contacted me to see if I wanted to collaborate with her on a project aimed at making air transportation more accessible. It was again a topic that I had never really considered, but that I quickly came to appreciate the importance of.”

How will this make a difference?

“There is a critical need for effective ways of preventing falls and fractures among older adults, as these can severely impact both health and quality of life. My research is helping to address this need. By identifying modifiable factors that influence the ability of older adults to recover from a loss of balance, fall prevention programs can be developed that target those factors. Similarly, if our research can identify which exercises are more beneficial to bone than others, more effective programs can be developed for reducing the bone loss that occurs with aging, thus helping to prevent fractures in older age.

My research on transfers is motivated by the notion that travel by automobile is near-essential for full participation in today’s society. Our research may lead to new recommendations on transfer technique and vehicle selection to make assisted transfers to or from an automobile safer and easier for those involved. In doing so, we will help to minimize one of the barriers many people with mobility difficulties face.”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

Biomechanics-lab-Synergies“We’re studying questions for which the answers aren’t known, and we never know exactly what we’re going to find. Many results closely match what we predicted. However, in every study, at least one finding emerges that wasn’t quite what we expected or that surprises us and causes us to change our view of how things work.”

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“Ultimately, I hope that my research will lead to fewer falls and fractures among older adults, fewer injuries during assisted transfers and greater quality of life for older adults and people with mobility difficulties.”

Why is research important in the field of exercise and sport science?

“The human body, its changes over time and its interactions with the world around it are extremely complex and there’s much that we don’t know about them. Often, our intuition is wrong. As such, it’s important that we base our practices within the field on sound evidence derived from research.”

What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

“My plans are to continue my current lines of research. In the near future, I will be working with a student to study the forces acting at the hip during a lunge exercise. I also plan to apply for a grant to study the extent to which variations in vehicle design and the use of assistive devices affect biomechanical risk factors for injury during assisted transfers to or from an automobile.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“I can’t say that any one piece of advice was the ‘best.’ I’ve learned a lot from many different people (family, mentors, friends, etc.), as well as through trial and error.”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“One small piece of advice that I probably give to students most often amounts to: ‘pay attention to the little things.”

What are your favorite activities to do outside of work?

“I enjoy mountain biking and running (when I’m not injured), as well as sports and exercise in general.”

Click here to learn more from CPHHS researchers in these “Inside the mind of researcher” feature stories.