Dr. Sydney Schaefer — assistant professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation — received the prestigious National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Mentored Research Scientist Development Award in late September for research in the physical rehabilitation of older adults.

“In biomedical research, to achieve NIH funding as a PI [principal investigator] is considered by many as a benchmark in one’s career,” Schaefer said. “In many ways this validates the work I have been doing in my lab.”

With over 40 percent of physical therapy patients in the U.S. 65 years old and older, Schaefer emphasizes the importance of rehabilitative treatments being effective and appropriate for older adults.

“I think rehabilitation has the ability to touch a lot of people’s lives regardless of age and condition,” Schaefer said. “In addition to medication and surgery, this can be a non-pharmacological and non-invasive approach to improving quality of life.”

Of the millions of older adults seeking physical rehabilitative treatment, 50 percent may have cognitive difficulties, such as dementia, that affect activities of daily living. Because of this, Schaefer is interested in the relationship between cognitive impairments and a patient’s success at learning or re-learning functional skills.

While many researchers studying aging focus on balance and fall prevention, Schaefer focuses on arm and hand function.

Schaefer’s Motor Rehabilitation and Learning Lab recruits middle-aged and older adults to engage in tasks that simulate specific aspects of everyday activities. For example, the process of feeding one’s self requires three steps: the ability to locate the food, use a utensil to manipulate the food, and the cognitive capacity to complete the necessary movements in a specific order.

Most people aren’t conscious of this process as they move, but physical and cognitive impairments that can accompany aging make it difficult.

“Participants may see our experimental tasks as challenging, but we see them as opportunities to learn with practice,” she said.

The NIH recognizes that teaching and research responsibilities often compete. A unique aspect of the Mentored Research Scientist Award is its focus on the professional development of up-and-coming researchers through salary and research support. Awardees work with mentors, whose skills and expertise nurture the career goals and desired skill development of the grantee.

Integrating cognitive impairment with rehabilitation goes beyond Schaefer’s skillset. This was a strategic step, as she will now develop additional skills in neuropsychology, disability and geriatric physical rehabilitation, which will benefit her future research.

Schaefer selected four mentors to guide her professional development; Dr. JoAnn Tschanz and Dr. Elizabeth Fauth of USU and Dr. Kevin Duff and Dr. Lee Dibble of the University of Utah.

Collectively this team has experience in neuropsychology to predict and diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, has studied the impact of interactions between dementia patients and their family and caregivers, and has studied rehabilitation interventions in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

“My research adds to the existing research strengths of Utah State that help us understand cognitive decline and aging,” Schaefer said. “It has the potential to improve the design and outcomes of sustainable yet affordable geriatric physical rehabilitation strategies, which will benefit both patients and health care providers.”

Her award, totaling $543,178, will be allocated over a four-year period until May 2019.

“At Utah State University, we seek to advance the training of our faculty so that they can continue to engage in cutting-edge, collaborative research,” said Mark McLellan, vice president for research and dean of the School of Graduate Studies. “Pursuit and reception of this award demonstrates the excellence and growth that Dr. Schaefer offers this institution.”