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DPT-PhD students Bailey Petersen and Stephanie Rigot receive NIH F30 awards

PITTSBURGH (May 23, 2019) … University of Pittsburgh graduate students Bailey Petersen, DPT, and Stephanie Rigot, DPT, received F30 Individual Predoctoral NRSA Fellowships from the National Institutes of Health. The award provides funding for students who are matriculated in a combined dual-doctoral degree training program and who intend to pursue careers as physician-scientists or other clinician-scientists.

Petersen and Rigot are members of the inaugural class of the Doctor of Physical Therapy/PhD in Bioengineering (DPT-PhD) dual-degree program, a unique offering that integrates clinical and research experiences in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and the Swanson School of Engineering.

“This program combines the outstanding evidence-based physical therapy education and innovative bioengineering research training that already exists at the university and builds upon synergies between faculty members of the nationally-ranked Departments of Bioengineering and Physical Therapy,” said Patrick Sparto, PT, PhD, associate professor of physical therapy and co-director of the DPT-PhD program.

Petersen works in the lab of Lee Fisher, PhD, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, where her research aims to restore a sense of joint movement that mimics the feeling of the leg and foot for people with lower-limb amputations.

“Individuals with lower-limb amputations face a wide range of gait impairments and have a substantially higher risk of falling than the average population,” said Petersen. “This increased fall risk can be partially attributed to a lack of the sense of touch and joint movement that are crucial for maintaining balance.”

The research group uses spinal cord stimulation in the low back, which activates the nerve fibers that normally carry sensory information from the leg and foot to the brain. They use sensors to measure movement and contact pressure of the prosthetic during normal walking and stimulate the corresponding nerve fibers in real-time. 

“When the prosthetic touches the ground, we induce stimulation, and the participant feels their foot moving and touching the ground as they walk,” explained Petersen. “The aim of this project is to improve gait and balance, thereby improving the mobility and safety of people with lower-limb amputations.”

Rigot works in the lab of Michael Boninger, PhD, Professor and UPMC Endowed Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, where she aims to develop a new measure of impairment after spinal cord injury using leg movements measured by activity monitors.

“Current testing, which is primarily measured by brute tests of strength and sensation, may not be sensitive enough to provide an accurate representation of an individual’s impairment and functional abilities,” explained Rigot. “Our new measure could be used to track an individual’s recovery over time, as well as provide a novel method to predict an individual’s long-term mobility potential using data collected soon after their spinal cord injury.”

The length of stay in inpatient rehabilitation after a spinal cord injury is decreasing, which forces clinicians to quickly make critical decisions about where to focus time in therapy to maximize an individual’s functional mobility.

Rigot plans to develop a new clinical prediction rule that would provide clinicians, individuals with spinal cord injuries, and their families with a more accurate and descriptive estimation of the individual’s future mobility. This strategy will allow patients to tailor their therapy and focus on the ideal interventions.

“If we can develop a tool to assist clinicians in determining the optimal interventions during therapy early after an injury, then we can hopefully improve the participation, quality of life, pain, and other outcomes for many of the nearly 18,000 people in the United States that experience a new spinal cord injury each year,” said Rigot.

“Bailey and Stephanie exemplify the caliber of students enrolled in this first class of the DPT-PhD program,” said Patrick Loughlin, PhD, professor of bioengineering and co-director of the program. “I’m excited to see what these students will accomplish in their future careers.”


Contact: Leah Russell