Interview with Mary Rodgers, Past President (2003 – 2005)

Posted on September 30, 2015

In May, Kelsey Collins and I had the privilege of speaking with Prof. Mary Rodgers (ISB President from 2003 - 2005) about her career, reflections on the broader biomechanics community, and our collective future in this field. Mary currently spends her time between the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Biomedical Engineering at the National Institute of Health (NIH) and as professor at the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at the University of Maryland. This interview continues the series that began with Julie Steele published in the March 2015 issue of ISB NOW [link]. A short video featuring segments of these interviews can be accessed here.

Being open to new opportunities can lead to unanticipated, meaningful achievements

“Obviously none of those [plans] worked out… And I’m really happy that they didn’t.”

“…Academics and research has allowed me to go places, do things, and see things
that I never would have…”

What struck me is how different Mary’s career path has been compared to what she’d expected when she started her journey as an undergraduate Physical Therapy student. At one point later in our conversation - when she’d already told us about a number of her accomplishments that had made an impact in the biomechanics and rehabilitation communities, such as her early research on wheelchair propulsion and her contributions within the NIH Technology for Healthy Independent Living program - she stated matter-of-factly, “Never say never!” She had never intended to get any schooling beyond her Bachelor’s degree nor work in academia rather than clinical practice. And yet, she immensely valued the opportunities that her academic and research path allowed her to experience.

In today’s world, where not only technology, but also our mindset around work culture both in academia and industry, are evolving so quickly, it may be impossible to predict where we could end up in five or ten years from now. Mary’s receptive approach to the possibilities presented at each moment of her career and personal life is a good reminder to myself to stay focussed on the present. After all, we may discover that the unanticipated direction turns out to be more important than anything we had envisioned with our original intent!

The interdisciplinary nature of future healthcare

“I think having that base [in physical therapy] was really important
for my later work with biomechanics.”

“There are huge issues around the use of technology. But there’s also huge potential because we have the ability for much more individualized and personalized healthcare.”

Mary described a future healthcare environment involving technology that would enable input of both personal information and the extensive experience of all other individuals contained in ever-growing “big data” databases to provide better clinical decision-making and guidance as part of health interventions. As she spoke, I imagined who might be involved from the patient’s perspective in developing such technology: physicians, therapists, engineers, perhaps also psychologists, sociologists, and others to help us understand and integrate these sensorial and emotional “experiences” into the design. Mary also mentioned a number of issues that would need to be addressed from an even broader perspective before it could be an effective system, including ownership, privacy, security, management of data and deciding how it would be used. The scope of ethical, legal, technical, economic, and medical issues is really mind boggling, but the potential is also very exciting.

It is clear that as we move forward, expertise from countless disciplines must be integrated within our concept of health and how it is provided. No matter what our backgrounds are, whether it be physical therapy like Mary’s or engineering like my own, these diverse perspectives and approaches will be important as our potential for innovation expands. What may be fathomable to only those such as Mary who are working directly in these areas of research, however, is the immeasurable ways in which these developments could be used. Improved technology for self-managing one’s own care - with requirements that increase as ability simultaneously decreases with age - is only one possibility that Mary hopes will be ready when she needs it!

Women’s progress in the biomechanics field

“…at the ASB meetings now it almost looks half and half
[in terms of gender distribution] … across the audience”

“…that you’re doing this… means we’ve come a long way.”

When asked about her biggest successes and contributions (and having scanned through Mary’s CV, I know there are many), she first mentioned her research on wheelchair propulsion biomechanics. Her work was the first to analyze users’ movement in three-dimensions with the goal to improve interventions that prevent overuse injury. This emphasis and dedication to the science is paramount (in my opinion) for role models in biomechanics.

However, continued advocacy is critical. Mary next mentioned her leadership roles within both the American and International Society of Biomechanics and I appreciate that she highlighted these achievements, especially the impact they have on gender equality in this field of research. One point she emphasized was the importance of women leaders exemplifying change within the ISB. This sentiment was echoed by just about every speaker at our inaugural women’s lunch that Kelsey organized at the ISB2015 congress. I was thrilled to later learn that this encouragement resulted in dozens of e-mails to John Challis, Past President, with suggestions for female candidates for the 2017 Council elections. Mary credits one of her female mentors with opening doors for her; likewise, I’d like to thank Mary for doing the same for many of us. The Twitter feed (below) from the ISB2015 lunch can attest to that.


To view video clips from our interview with Mary Rodgers, please follow this link.

Andrea Hemmerich, PhD

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