NUCATS Spotlight: Engineering into Medicine Post-Doctoral Fellow - Robert Gregg, PhD

Spotlight: Robert Gregg

Robert Gregg

Robert Gregg, PhD, is an alumnus of the MCTS Scholars Program and is currently a post-doctoral fellow in the Prosthesis Design & Control Laboratory at the Center for Bionic Medicine, a part of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.  He has recently accepted a position as assistant professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering at the University of Texas at Dallas. 

NUCATS was able to catch up with Robert Gregg, PhD, an Engineering into Medicine Post-Doctoral Fellow, and talk to him about his NUCATS sponsored research and how the program supported his career in clinical and translational research.  The Engineering into Medicine Post Doctoral Fellowship is offered through NUCATS and encouraged by Dean Julio Ottino, Dean of the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Gregg was also awarded a 2012 Career Award at the Scientific Interface from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, winning $500,000 in research funding.  He attributes the Engineering into Medicine Post Doctoral Fellowship in helping him win the award.  Read article >

Please briefly describe your NUCATS Institute funded project.

I am translating feedback control principles from the field of autonomous robot walking into design and control methodologies for clinically viable powered prosthetic legs. This work aims to address serious limitations in the capabilities of prosthetic legs to date, which typically do not contribute energy to the walking gait or automatically adapt to shoe differences, environmental conditions, and external forces.

Why did you choose this area of interest in research?

Estimates suggest that there are over 1 million lower-limb amputees in the U.S. today, and the incidence of amputation is expected to double by the year 2050 due in large part to the prevalence of cardiovascular disease.  Depending on the level of amputation, these individuals can spend up to three times more energy walking than able-bodied individuals and often struggle to climb ramps, hills, and stairs.  Meanwhile, we have seen remarkable advances in the field of robotic walking over the past decade, from the Honda ASIMO to the Boston Dynamics Petman. I realized during my Ph.D. studies in this area that the control concepts which have proven successful in these robots could be of significant value in prosthetics and orthotics. So I went to Northwestern University and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to learn about the clinical and technological challenges in physical rehabilitation.
Did mentorship play a significant role in getting your research career to the point it is today?

Absolutely, good mentorship is essential to a successful postdoctoral study. Professors Jonathon Sensinger, Todd Kuiken, and Kevin Lynch have been instrumental in my career development by fostering creativity, providing clinical training, and ultimately providing an environment to develop my research career vision.

What changes have occurred in your education and training as a result of your NUCATS Institute resources and what impacts are you seeing?

I now feel that I have a good grasp on the meaning and virtue of translational research.  The research enterprise no longer seems mysterious and unapproachable.  I feel confident in my research and career trajectory, and I am seeing more doors opening than I could have imagined.

What are your research goals for the next five years?

As a faculty member I hope to pioneer a new field of inquiry in rehabilitation control systems in order to restore mobility in a variety of impaired populations. I plan to collaborate with my postdoctoral mentors to integrate signals from muscles near the amputation site to allow the user to adapt prosthesis behavior. I will also branch into the related area of orthotics (i.e., exoskeletons), where prosthetic control strategies can be applied to replicate leg function after spinal cord injury or assist locomotion after stroke. In order to implement more sophisticated control paradigms in the future, I plan to work with collaborators who are developing wearable electronics that adhere to the skin, which can provide sensory information from the body to wearable robots. The more feedback we have the better we can control the robot for the user's needs.

What advice would you give to young scientists looking to develop a career in translational research?

I would suggest finding mentors that offer experience that is complimentary to your own.  Make sure the environment is a good fit too, because I found that much of my creative thinking was inspired by my environment.  Learn the clinical challenges and realities so you don't sound naive, but don't be afraid to challenge the scientific boundaries.  And don't be afraid to learn a new set of skills!

What NUCATS programs and events in addition to your funding assisted you?

The NUCATS Institute provided a vivid picture of how to fund and conduct translational research through the "Navigating the Translational Research Enterprise" seminar series and the "Responsible Conduct of Research" course.