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Finding a Balance – at Home and in the Lab

Bioengineering Professor Rakie Cham spends her days researching how to prevent falls and mentoring junior faculty, before returning to her busy home life


Above: PhD student Natalie Bick (left) walks through the 14-camera motion capture system that helps create a 3D model of the person, so scientists can track their motions and determine how a fall occurs. Bick came to Pitt specifically to work with Professor of Bioengineering Rakie Cham, pictured on the right. (Tom Altany)

Rakie Cham knew from an early age that she wanted to help people who had a disability. As a child growing up in Senegal, Africa, she saw mothers with disfigurements and disabilities, huddled along the hot, dusty roadside with their small children, begging for money to survive. It’s a visual that stayed with her for life. 

Fast forward several decades, and now Cham, a professor in bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, is active in the School’s Human Movement and Balance Laboratory.

Her research focuses on improving postural stability and helping to reduce falls in vulnerable populations – the elderly, those with vision problems, young adults with autism, or older people in the workplace, where falls have become increasingly common.

Her interest in rehabilitation is linked to seeing the Senegalese people struggle in a third-world country that lacked the money or infrastructure to help them. So, after securing a master’s degree in physics at McGill University in Montreal, she came to Pitt as a PhD student with something else in mind.

“I wanted to change my career trajectory from physics to a field that involves more interactions with people. I needed to feel more useful,” said Cham, who joined the Pitt faculty in 2002. 

Sensory information related to balance travels to our brain via three channels: vision, vestibular, and somatosensory. The information is integrated in our brain and generates motor commands to maintain balance in challenging environments. For older people, Cham says, any of these channels or systems can develop problems.

“We have found that, as we age, how we sense that we are slipping or tripping and how we react to those large perturbations gets worse,” she said. Targeted interventions can include balance therapy that addresses things like strength and reaction time.

Interim Bioengineering Chair Mark Redfern says Cham goes about her work in a “quiet, unassuming but very effective way,” combining her knowledge on balance and locomotion with investigations of cognition in people with low vision or even anxiety. For example, she is trying to define what people with low vision are capable of and then match that to potential jobs in the workforce.

“People with low vision have a very high unemployment rate because companies are unsure about what they can do,” he said. “Dr. Cham hopes to bridge that gap. It’s a win-win.”

Cham’s work is always interdisciplinary, including collaborating with Pitt’s Department of Opthamology to develop research space at the new UPMC Eye Center Mercy.

Capturing Motion to Develop Interventions

At the Human Movement and Balance Lab, Cham and her team use a motion capture system – 14 cameras that show a pulse of infrared light which bounces off small sphere-shaped reflectors placed on the patient’s body. The data collected by the cameras helps create a 3D model of the person, allowing scientists to track people’s motions performing such tasks as walking or navigating an obstacle course under different lighting conditions. Once they understand how a fall occurs, they can work with clinicians to develop preventative interventions.

This collaboration with world-class scientists and clinicians is the most rewarding part of the job, says Cham, who calls the UPMC Center for Balance Disorders one of the “best in the nation.” Her students also get to collaborate, one of the opportunities that makes Pitt Bioengineering unique.

PhD student Natalie Bick, who came to Pitt specifically to study under Cham, works with researchers in Pitt’s Department of Psychiatry and at the UPMC Eye Center in the Eye & Ear Institute in Oakland. She compares the results of certain experiments with those who have glaucoma and those who do not. 

The lab’s computerized dynamic posturography machine alters sensory inputs to determine how people maintain their balance in different conditions.

“I’m learning a lot,” said Bick, “and keeping busy with science.”

Meanwhile, Cham is handling a different kind of balance in her life as well – juggling a busy household of two pre-teen children, her husband, and her 88-year-old mother, with a demanding job that involves a day of teaching, meetings, and lab work. Once the children are in bed, Cham sits up working on research late into the night, not to mention preparing lesson plans for class.

“It’s a full load,” said Cham, admitting she married later in life because she wanted to firmly establish her career. Her husband is Wissam Saidi, Team Head of the computational materials engineering group at the National Energy Technology Lab in Pittsburgh. Having her live-in mother there to prepare meals helped a lot in the early days, which ties in with the second thing she loves most about her job – mentoring junior faculty.

“When I talk to junior women faculty or graduate students, I tell them to be prepared. Get more help. I don’t know what they would do, if they do not get the kind of help I had,” she said.

The third aspect of her job she appreciates is being recognized by her peers. Late this summer, the American Society of Biomechanics named Cham as President. The position will allow her to develop initiatives for younger people from more diverse engineering groups, tying back to the mentoring role she relishes. Overall, Cham says she couldn’t have thrived in her career without the support of the Pitt Bioengineering senior faculty.

As far as down time, there is not a lot of it. But she enjoys traveling with her children and has taken them to Paris and Canada. Her father took her family to a different country every summer and she realizes now how valuable it was.

Redfern has noticed young faculty and grad students seeking out Cham, who has accomplished much of what she set out to do when she left McGill University. 

“They look to her as someone who has succeeded,” he said.



The work was supported by funds from the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences under grant number DE-FG02-90ER45438. The University of Pittsburgh Center for Research Computing provided computational facilities.