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Meet Our Scholars

Toronto Rehab research is preparing students for careers in the rapidly expanding field of rehabilitation science. Here are the stories of some current and former students, and what they are accomplishing in Canada and abroad.


Dr. Dimitry Sayenko: Retraining People with Spinal Cord Injuries to Stand and Balance

Born in the Russian city of Salsk not far from the Black Sea, Dr. Dimitry Sayenko could hardly have predicted where life would take him.

With a medical degree from Rossijskij Gosudarstvennyj Medicinskij Universitet, he was hired to work with Russian cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts. His task was to find ways to minimize the harmful effects of zero-gravity on the body. Dr. Sayenko attended pre-launches and post-landings tests. He won awards from NASA and the Russian Academy of Sciences for his work, which included participation in the design of a treadmill and other exercise devices for crew members to use aboard the International Space Station.

Then, after meeting Dr. Milos R. Popovic, a Toronto Rehab senior scientist, when both were in Japan, Dr. Sayenko grew interested in Dr. Popovic’s research with the hospital’s Neural Engineering and Therapeutics Team. So interested, in fact, that he joined Toronto Rehab as a postdoctoral fellow, using his expertise to help a different group: people with spinal cord injuries. Like astronauts, these individuals experience bone loss, muscle atrophy and changes in the central nervous system. Dr. Sayenko developed new techniques to help restore the neuromuscular system after a spinal cord injury. The goal: to retrain people with spinal cord injuries to stand and balance.

“Standing is beneficial for the strength and health of people with spinal cord injuries―provided it is done safely,” says Dr. Sayenko. “For those with incomplete injuries, standing improves self-confidence and independence, making it easier, for instance, to transfer from wheelchair to bed. No matter what the level of injury, standing can also help to reduce secondary complications, such as muscle atrophy and bone loss.”

In one research project, Dr. Sayenko focused on what happens when people with incomplete spinal cord injuries stand, while watching the position of their ‘centre of pressure’ on a monitor. Participants were instructed to shift their body in certain directions. The results? All showed substantial improvements in their balance. “For people whose sensory systems don’t work due to injury, visual feedback provides them with reliable information about their body position,” Dr. Sayenko explains.

In another project, Dr. Sayenko tested a new video-game based training system that uses electrical stimulation and visual feedback. A 57-year old man with a complete spinal cord injury used the system four years after his injury―with remarkable results. As reported in the journal Medical Engineering and Physics, the man experienced a significant improvement in the strength and endurance of his paralyzed lower leg muscles, and increased the range of motion in his ankle joints.

In August 2012, Dr. Sayenko was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where he is a member of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center. “I am excited with the opportunity to develop a clinical research program directed toward the study of the plasticity potential of the central nervous system and musculature after spinal cord injury and development of novel treatments to promote functional recovery.”

For Dr. Sayenko, who once wanted to be a cosmonaut himself, his work brings a deep sense of satisfaction. “It’s a great feeling to be useful, to be helping people in this way.”


Eric Wan: Helping a Star to Shine

For months, Eric Wan lay in a hospital bed unable to speak or move. Paralyzed from the neck down, the 18-year-old could only nod and shake his head.

One day, an occupational therapist worked with a biomedical engineer to adapt a TV remote for Eric. It allowed him to change a TV channel by moving his cheek. “It was a huge step forward because I went from not being able to do anything at all – even just to be able to change the channel, it gave me a lot of joy,” Wan recalls.

It was a rare reaction to a routine measles vaccination in 1996 that caused paralysis in Wan’s limbs. The high school student, whose world had revolved around computers and violin practice, was forced to temporarily withdraw from school. But Wan eventually finished high school and entered the University of Toronto’s engineering faculty. His ambition: to help children with severe disabilities by designing technology that brings them exactly what he craved – independence.

In recognition of his academic achievement and the quality of his research, Wan won the 2010-2011 Toronto Rehabilitation Institute Scholarship in Rehabilitation-related Research for Graduate Students with Disabilities. The scholarship helped Wan to pursue a master’s degree by providing him with $20,000 annually plus additional funding for educational expenses incurred as a result of his disability. In 2012, he successfully defended his Master’s, obtaining a degree in electrical and computer engineering in collaboration with the biomedical engineering department.

Wan spent six years studying under Dr. Tom Chau, Canada Research Chair in Paediatric Rehabilitation Engineering and head of Holland Bloorview’s Paediatric Rehabilitation Intelligent Systems Multidisciplinary (PRISM) lab. Under Dr. Chau’s direction, Wan found his research niche in computer software development aimed at improving the lives of children with disabilities.

Wan was part of a team that developed the software for a project - called the Virtual Music Instrument - that allows people with limited use of their limbs to ‘play’ music without physically holding a musical instrument. The program works like the musical equivalent to a Wii sports game. When the user makes a motion in front of a computer screen, musical notes ring out.

Sitting in front of his computer, Wan demonstrates how the slightest movement can prompt a computer-generated version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

Today, Wan is a software developer at Komodo OpenLab, a developer of inclusive technologies that facilitate the daily lives of people with disabilities. He is interested in pursuing a PhD and wants to stay active in rehabilitation engineering research.

Believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, the scholarship held by Wan was made possible by TD Bank Financial Group, which has pledged $750,000 to date for the TD Grant in Medical Excellence: A Scholarship in Rehabilitation-related Research for People with Disabilities.


Dr. Gurjit Singh: Using the Internet to Help People with Hearing Loss

It’s a sad fact that about one in five people with hearing loss stop using their hearing aid - and Dr. Gurjit Singh wants to do something about it.

The mysteries surrounding hearing loss have always fascinated Dr. Singh, who was an audiologist at a hearing clinic before deciding to return to university. “I had all kinds of questions I wanted to answer, such as why is there such variability with success when people use hearing aids?”

Now a postdoctoral student at the University of Toronto, Dr. Singh is a member of Toronto Rehab’s Communication Team. He holds a special grant that will advance his research and, he hopes, take away one of the barriers to hearing-aid use. The federal funding is part of Elevate, a new program to keep top PhD holders in Ontario. It’s managed by MITACS, a national research network that connects Canadian businesses with the next generation of skilled workers.

Dr. Singh is using the MITACS Elevate grant to study what he describes as a “potentially revolutionary” way of delivering hearing-aid services over the Internet. The new technology - developed by his industrial partner Unitron Hearing/Sonova Holding AG - is a breakthrough because it lets audiologists remotely program people’s hearing aids.

Currently, getting a hearing aid involves three to four visits to a clinic. “Hearing aids have to be tailored to the individual. On return visits to the clinic, the audiologist fine-tunes the hearing aid,” explains Dr. Singh.

But for some people, especially those who have mobility issues or live in remote areas, or even those who simply have heavy demands on their time, return visits can be a real challenge. This may be one of the reasons people discontinue use of their hearing aids―a situation that is “not ideal, given all that we know about the importance of keeping socially active and having networks of support for successful aging,” says Dr. Singh.

Unsolved hearing problems also make it harder to prevent and treat many other health problems. “We need to remove those barriers to hearing-aid use one at a time. And that’s where the real power of hearing rehabilitation lies,” says Dr. Singh.

In his study, Dr. Singh will look at several issues, including clinical outcomes and the effect of the new remote technology on patient-clinician interactions.

“This new technology by Unitron could potentially revolutionize the way professionals work with their patients, enabling audiologists to connect with people in the actual environments in which they work or live. It won’t replace all face-to-face interactions, but there’s the potential to greatly improve access for patients and to increase the use of hearing aids.”

With this and other recent advances, Ontario has the expertise to be a world leader in the delivery of hearing-related services using telecommunications technologies, says Dr. Singh.

Hearing loss is estimated to directly impact one in 10 North Americans and is currently the third most common chronic condition affecting older people.

Dr. Singh’s academic supervisor is Dr. Kathy Pichora-Fuller, a Toronto Rehab adjunct scientist University of Toronto psychology professor.


Dr. Lora Giangregorio: An “Essential” Grounding for a Career in Research

Dr. Lora Giangregorio still remembers the day she received a letter inviting her to join Toronto Rehab’s eclectic research team. She welcomed the chance to take up a postdoctoral fellowship at a place with an unusually rich mix of talent under one roof.

“I was exposed to a variety of disciplines and perspectives because the group included engineers, physiatrists, physiotherapists and psychosocial researchers,” says Dr. Giangregorio, who came to the hospital’s spinal cord rehabilitation program with a Canadian Institutes of Health Research/March of Dimes Fellowship Award.

“My postdoc experience was rewarding and fun. I developed skills and relationships that are essential for fulfilling my career goals.”

Among the rewarding experiences was exploring the potential of a small electrical device that is capturing attention worldwide. Known as functional electrical stimulation (FES), it can prompt muscles to work again in some people with paralysis.

Under Dr. Milos R. Popovic, Dr. Giangregorio got her first experience with a randomized controlled trial. She assisted with running the day-to-day aspects of the trial, which investigated the impact of FES on walking in people with incomplete spinal cord injury.

Dr. Giangregorio was soon snapped up by the University of Waterloo (UW), where she is an Associate Professor of kinesiology. She is now a Canadian Institutes of Health Research New Investigator. Her research program includes looking at ways to prevent fractures and improve mobility and quality of life in people with osteoporosis. Developing and evaluating strategies for increasing physical activity participation is a cornerstone of her research. Dr. Giangregorio is also affiliated with the Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging (RIA).

And her connection with Toronto Rehab continues. Dr. Giangregorio is now an adjunct scientist and continues to collaborate with many of her contacts at the hospital. “I think it’s really important to develop collaborative groups that you can work with in the long run,” she says. “Rather than having little islands working on similar goals, it’s better to bring people together to pool their expertise.”