Education Matters

Guest Series: Construction workers on stilts led kinesiology major to the research lab

Dr. Jonathan Singer is a postdoc at Sunnybrook’s Heart and Stroke Foundation Centre for Stroke Recovery studying the biomechanics and balance control of stroke patients with lower limb spasticity. He completed his PhD at the University of Waterloo, and both his Master’s and Undergraduate degrees at the University of Ottawa. All of the degrees were in Kinesiology and his research focus in Kinesiology has been biomechanics. He tells Masters’ student and guest blogger Randy Rovinski how he got to where he is.
On the surface, Dr. Jonathan Singer’s academic and career trajectory might seem predictable.  The reality, however, was a somewhat more tortuous and uncertain path that even had him knocking down construction workers on stilts – but don’t worry, we’ll get back to that soon.
“In my first two years of my undergrad, I thought as I think most kin students do, you go into kin thinking that you’re going to be a clinician of some sort,” Singer tells me.  As expected, many of his classmates, entered careers in medicine, occupational therapy, and physiotherapy.  Something changed for Singer though with further exposure to biomechanics research.  After his last two years, working in two different labs, he abandoned plans to do anything “clinical,” as he put it, more interested in the basic biomechanics than applied research studying a specific risk group.
Knowing U of Waterloo had a well-reputed program, and a more mechanistic approach, Singer pursued a PhD there. Within six weeks of beginning though, his supervisor had a stroke, leaving Singer uncertain as to whether his PhD would unravel given the imminent hiatus of his supervisor – a hiatus which went on to last nearly two years.
Singer stayed on though, and became involved in an external research contract.
“It was kind of wacky,” he tells me with a smile.  At the time, a number of construction workers apparently used stilts on the job site.  However, such stilt use was illegal on construction sites in Ontario.  A number of construction sector unions approached the director of U of Waterloo’s Centre for Research Expertise in Musculoskeletal Disorders.  They wanted to commission a university study on the effects of stilt use on gait and balance, with the ultimate goal of lobbying for removal of the ban.  The Centre approached Dr. Stephen Prentice, a faculty member studying the biomechanics and neural control of locomotion.
For the study, the lab saw a number of contractors who used stilts on the job.  The contractors would come into the lab, put on their stilts, and have their balance monitored and reactions challenged: Basically, Singer got to “essentially shove people and monitor their reaction.”  He found the science fascinating, and the contractors shared all sorts of stories with him about how they avoided getting caught – even setting obstacles to slow down inspectors and gain an extra few moments to shed and hide the stilts. 

Much of this research was being conducted in lab space shared with Dr. Bill McIlroy, where Singer was getting some of his first exposure to balance control research.  The two started chatting about potential avenues of research.  Having hatched a project, Singer and McIlroy proposed the collaborative project to Singer’s PI, Dr. Prentice.  Given the go ahead, Singer dove in.
Completing his PhD, Singer wanted to acquire some new skills, return to the “clinical” work he’d earlier set aside, and study a group with a particular clinical risk factor.  Dr. George Mochizuki had been a postdoc for McIlroy and was now looking at spasticity and balance control at Sunnybrook.  McIlroy suggested the lab to be a good potential fit, and soon after Singer and Mochizuki were in touch, a postdoc position was secured.
Singer acknowledges the importance of the relationships he has formed in bringing him to where he is today.  However, he admits that he didn’t understand the value of making connections at first.  “I’d go to conferences to get information and ideas, but it wasn’t so much about the people, it was only later on that I realized the importance of the people in research.”  And that is what in the end moved him in the direction of balance control research and subsequently to Sunnybrook.
After a quick tour of the newly built centre on M6 and all the cool gadgets and devices, Singer tells more about his research.  Firstly, he puts spasticity into simple terms for me.  When a muscle is stretching or lengthening, there is increased nerve impulse sent to the muscle, causing it to contract and resist the stretch.  Spasticity is essentially the hyperactivity of this reflex.  Unfortunately, many stroke patients suffer from lower limb spasticity, and this is suspected to challenge their balance control.  Given the increased prevalence of sideways falls, hip injuries, and the subsequent morbidities in stroke patients, gaining a better understanding of how exactly spasticity modifies balance control is of evident clinical value.
In terms of what’s next, Singer tells me he’d like to find a position within academia.  Working in a larger lab with graduate students, he’s found himself thoroughly enjoying the teaching and mentoring involved.  And in the true spirit of a scientist, he says he can imagine finding great satisfaction in galvanizing others, “to be able to inspire people to go on and do great things, hopefully, at some point I’ll be able to do that.”

-Randy Rovinski

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About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.