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Exercise science is on legislators' minds as session kicks off

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Spotlight

When the Georgia legislature kicks off its new session this week, research taking place at the College of Education's kinesiology department will be part of the conversation.

Julianne Schmidt

That's because staff members for the Speaker of the House and the House Judiciary Committee paid a visit to the College this past fall for information on concussion research and non-invasive muscle therapy and evaluation. The purpose of the trip was to update key players in the state legislature on where the research is heading, and what this might mean down the road for the University of Georgia as a leader in these fields.

Julianne Schmidt, an assistant professor in kinesiology, gave the staff members a look at the research she has been conducting on concussions with members of the UGA football team. As she held a specially equipped helmet in front of the group in her Ramsey Center lab, she explained how injuries to the top of the head often result in spinal cord injuries. "We're trying to determine what kind of head impacts result in concussion," she said. "We're also collecting data on sub-concussive impacts ... and we want to know who is sustaining the top-of-the-head impacts."

Her latest research takes a look at the effects of driving after a concussion, and she is working with a driving test expert from Georgia Regents University on creating a test that can measure impairment.

"Someone immediately following a concussion is not unlike a drunk driver," she said. "We're trying to find recommendations on when it's safe to return to driving."

Down the hall, fellow professor Kevin McCully gave the guests a hands-on lesson in the non-invasive tests he and his students have developed to determine muscle health. By measuring the mitochondria, or energy given off by a muscle — often in a patient with a neuromuscular injury — it's possible to gauge the health of the muscles without breaking the skin.

A few feet away from the table where a legislative aide lay strapped to the neuromuscular test, McCully pointed out another computer hooked up to several leg muscles at once, delivering small pulses of electricity to move them. The pulses can translate to exercises for people with spinal cord injuries or degenerative diseases.

But one aspect of the research both Schmidt and McCully made clear to the visiting legislative delegation was that this research wouldn't be possible without the help of students, and in many cases it's students who are leading their own research.

Faculty given demo

Graduate student Melissa Erickson, for example, is studying the effects diabetes medicine has on exercise. Zoe Yurchuk, an undergraduate, is developing a commercialized version of the muscle exerciser that can be set up in homes for around $1,000. The project is conducted through the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, or CURO. Schmidt has two graduate students doing their own research on concussions among members of a football team's "scout team," or practice squad, and another CURO student did research on face mask structures.

There are even more possibilities, McCully said. At this point, the students are only limited by the facility housing them.

"UGA has so many good students," he said, adding that both undergraduates and graduates have quality research topic ideas—but they lack the lab space to do the work. But those who do start a project become an essential link between the lab and the real world, added kinesiology department head Janet Buckworth.

"It's that transition from lab bench to park bench," she said. "How can we take this research in the lab to try and bring it out and benefit the general public?"

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602