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A passion for discovery

Kathryn Kao

April 25, 2016

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One day after her Introduction to Adults with Disabilities class, Becky Baltenberger decided to ask her kinesiology professor about starting her own research project. Not only did this decision bring about some of the best experiences of her undergraduate years, but it also helped pave the way for her future career as an occupational therapist.

Earlier this month, Baltenberger completed a two-day poster session at the annual Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO) Symposium. This event, which includes poster sessions and oral presentations, was created in 1999 to highlight undergraduate student research achievements in all subject areas.

With participation in the program nearing 400 students, Baltenberger presented at the symposium's biggest year yet.

"I've enjoyed doing CURO so much," said Baltenberger, who will graduate this May from the University of Georgia College of Education with a bachelor's degree in exercise and sport science. "I really got to experience not just analyzing the data, but also getting to collect, design and write about it. I gained practical knowledge, not just general knowledge."

Under the supervision of her mentor and kinesiology professor Kevin McCully, Baltenberger jumped headfirst into her research and presented at last year's CURO Symposium as a junior. Her past research on electrical stimulation eventually developed into her current study titled "Quantifying Muscle Fatigue in Previously Fatigued Muscle."

By using electrical stimulation to send electric currents through a person's muscle, Baltenberger could bypass the central nervous system and examine how muscles, specifically the trapezius muscles, contract. An accelerometer was used to measure how fast the muscle was contracting, with less acceleration indicating more fatigued muscles.

Rebecca Baltenberger

"So that's how we're measuring fatigue because the more fatigued you are, the slower the contractions are," said Baltenberger. "You start with big peaks when you've got a lot of force, but after five minutes, you don't have as much anymore because your muscles are getting tired."

To simulate prior fatigue, participants were asked to perform an exhaustive exercise routine after their muscles were measured in a rested state. After completing some shoulder shrugs, Baltenberger re-measured each participant's muscle contraction to see how the trapezius was affected.

So far, Baltenberger has studied seven participants and plans to test a total of 15 for her final thesis. Although her research is heavily focused on healthy individuals, she hopes to apply her findings to a more diseased population in the future.

"The reason we're trying to characterize this is for people with chronic conditions," she said. "For people who come in fatigued and can't function well, it'd be really nice to have a clinical test that can show there's something wrong—that you have a fatigued muscle in a rested state."

After examining the initial results, Baltenberger discovered that the trapezius muscles are more fatigable than other limb muscles. And although fatigue had an effect on the muscle's endurance index, more experiments are needed before she can fully characterize an acutely fatigued muscle.

"Becky did a nice job on her project, and she has worked hard to collect data and overcome the inevitable challenges of doing research," said McCully, who also serves as director of UGA's non-invasive exercise muscle physiology laboratory. "Becky is one of the best examples of a student who has taken advantage of her lab experience to improve. Becky has grown in our lab and will go on to be a fantastic occupational therapist. She really has been everything I could ask of an undergraduate student in my lab and more.

Muscle fatigue is one of the most common symptoms reported by people with chronic diseases and spinal cord injuries. Baltenberger hopes that one day, her study can be used in a clinical setting so that doctors and therapists can better understand how to treat chronically fatigued muscles.

Additionally, she is eager to see if her results can be used in training to increase muscle endurance in athletes. Her findings could potentially show athletic trainers how much a muscle has improved overtime.

As her graduation date approaches, Baltenberger can fully appreciate having the opportunity to conduct her own research, especially as an undergraduate. Participating in CURO not only expanded her knowledge in the field, but it also helped solidify her interest in occupational therapy.

"I'm going to miss doing research, and I'm going to miss being in Athens because UGA is awesome," she said. "It's definitely got me interested in pursuing research maybe down the road in my own field because it's fun and interesting."

After graduating in May, Baltenberger will immediately move to Charleston, South Carolina, to begin a two-and-a-half-year occupational therapy program at the Medical University of South Carolina.

With CURO, an undergraduate thesis and a wealth of clinical shadowing experience tucked under her belt, Baltenberger feels prepared to take on her graduate studies, which will include five semesters of classes and two semesters of clinical rotations.

While she originally planned on pursuing a career in pediatrics, Baltenberger's exposure to patients with acute brain and spinal cord injuries at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta and her experience working with older patients at the Athens Community Council on Aging has her reconsidering her options again.

"Because I got to do all of that, I actually am not sure what I want to do now," she said. "I'm still interested in pediatrics, but I'm also interested in geriatrics now because of my other shadowing. So I'm open to a lot of things. I want to use OT school to really feel out where I want to go in the end."