Finding Balance

“I have always been interested in working in a clinical setting (and I still am) but now I can see how research and helping others can be merged.” 


Name: Chiara Piccolo


Year of Study: 5


Supervisor: Drs. Dan Marigold and Dylan Cooke


Lab: Sensorimotor Neuroscience Laboratory / Sensorimotor Neuroplasticity Lab

Click to read more about Chiara’s Research Experience

Research Experience

I began working in Dr. Dan Marigold’s Sensorimotor Neuroscience Lab with a USRA during the summer of 2018. We embarked on a project to explore the effects of vestibular stimulation on balance under challenging conditions. I helped design the testing protocol and took the lead on many aspects of this study. After performing a literature search on existing information on the topic, I recruited participants and carried out testing protocols independently throughout the late summer. After this was completed I was able to analyze the data and perform statistical tests with the help of a graduate student in the lab. As the project was not complete by the end of the semester I enrolled in BPK 498 and continued in the lab as a directed study to be a part of finishing the analysis and writing the paper for publication. The Fall semester allowed me to develop my scientific writing and presentation skills. These experiences encouraged me to apply to complete an Honours in a related lab with Dr. Dylan Cooke. I have completed my Honours proposal on mapping the motor cortex and am gearing up for an exciting semester of research ahead this Fall.

How did you get involved in research, and why?

After taking BPK 201, Dr. Wakeling put out a call for volunteers to help analyze cycling data in his lab. As a keen undergrad, I jumped at this opportunity and was welcomed into the world of research. This experience inspired me to seek opportunities to become directly involved in research, so I applied for a USRA for the Summer 2018 term. I was interested in adding to my resume and making some money while I studied for the MCAT. During my interviews in different labs, Dr. Dan Marigold’s Sensorimotor Neuroscience Lab stood out in my mind. I had enjoyed learning from him in BPK 207 and was interested in expanding my knowledge on the vestibular system and in neuroscience. After a very busy summer, I continued on as a Directed Studies student. My interest in research has since deepened beyond the point of simply improving my resume and gaining new experiences. I enjoy the independence and challenges research brings and find that I can truly apply what I have learned in my degree to benefit a lab environment. I also appreciate being a part of a curious and supportive community. I am currently continuing my research experience by pursuing an Honours degree in the Sensorimotor Neuroplasticity lab to complement my previous experience working in the realm of Neuromechanics.

What was something challenging or unique you have encountered through your research, and how did you overcome it?

I never realized how many areas you are required to have knowledge on beyond what we learn in the classroom to successfully perform research. It is necessary to understand all the technology for recording data, how to code, and how to communicate effectively. I learned that patience is the most important virtue in research. Things never go as planned and I had to become adaptable to accommodate the many set-backs we faced.

Describe a particularly memorable experience you had in research, or something that you will take away from being involved in research?

A memorable experience I had throughout my experience involved all the different participants I had the opportunity to meet. In one experience, I was helping test participants in an older adult study that involved walking balance with modified vision. I was surprised by this particular participants’ intriguing conversations and willingness to undergo such unpleasant conditions. She, along with many other participants, expressed her desire to help the scientific community and to contribute to helping those who may benefit from this research in the future. Some participants did not even want to accept the small cash incentive we offered! I was shocked by the intrigue of these participants who had no link to the scientific community but truly put their faith in our work.

What is one thing you learned about being involved in research that you didn’t expect?

That I would enjoy research! I have always been interested in working in a clinical setting (and I still am) but now I can see how research and helping others can be merged. I am excited to continue to be involved in research as I continue my academic journey.

Keywords: Dr. Dan Marigold, Chiara Piccolo, Vestibular stimulation, Balance, Neuroscience

Putting ‘Putting’ to the Test

“I learned that a large part of what makes research unique and interesting is being able to utilize your particular skillset (both things you learned inside and outside the classroom) to solve problems on the path to answering the research question.” 

Neurokinesiology Team Research Field Trip, summer 2018 (from left: Dr. Andy Hoffer, Alesia diCicco, Valentin Hutter and Andy Hoffer)


Name: Aaron Siebenga


Year of Study: 3


Supervisor: Dr. Andy Hoffer


Lab: Neurokinesiology Lab

Click to read more about Aaron’s Research Experience

Research Experience

I first approached Dr. Hoffer to work as a volunteer in his lab as I was interested in his neuroprosthetic work. However, as his Lungpacer-related lab research at SFU was completed, he offered me to work on a new project involving putting tremor. Basically, a friend of his with tremor had found that by using a longer putter and an alternate grip, he could alleviate his tremor and golf better, and Dr. Hoffer wanted to see if that alternate grip could help others play better too (both people with and without tremor, as the ‘yips’ that cause some golfers so much trouble are thought to be a form of tremor). I accepted, reckoning that it would be a good opportunity to see what research is really like even if it wasn’t directly tied to my interests. Along with other volunteers, I helped build the experiment from the ground up. This was sometimes literal, as once we planned out the experiment we spent a few weeks tidying up a converted storage area room and building a golf putting course there to perform the study. I mainly took on a data analysis role, which later developed into two USRA terms (Summers 2018 and 2019).

How did you get involved in research, and why?

With my Neuroscience degree, the two main paths in front of me are medicine and research. I’m drawn towards research for several reasons; First, I don’t want to have to deal with the onerous tests and years of extra study involved in medical school. Second, I feel that I would enjoy hunting down new information and trying new things, rather than being limited to using established techniques again and again. And third, I’m particularly fond of brain-computer interfaces, and we’re nowhere near far along development on those yet for them to enter the medical field (at least not the kinds of BCIs I’m interested in). As SFU doesn’t have a very developed Neuroscience research program, I was drawn to Dr. Hoffer as his neuroprosthetic work was the closest thing on campus to BCIs.

What was something challenging or unique you have encountered through your research, and how did you overcome it?

One of the things Dr. Hoffer tasked me with was taking the data produced by our tracking program (positions of 8 items [putter sections, hands, feet, etc.] from 6 cameras) and producing 3D model data from it. To do this, I built a giant 27-sheet Excel document (currently on it’s 11th version) that helps the data entry volunteer calculate the time differential between the cameras, takes in the raw data, checks for time differential errors and position errors (data from different cameras having large differences in position), synchronizes the data relative to time difference and position difference (turning several 2D data points into 3D information), detects when the ball is putted, generates 3D data for the modelling program and computes other secondary information (e.g. putter shaft angle, putter head angle, and ball velocity). All in Microsoft Excel. This could probably have been done much more efficiently with computer programming, but despite my lack of programming knowledge I’m quite happy with how it turned out. I took a class in the R language this Spring term, so maybe I’ll be able to make it a bit more digestible in Version 12 by integrating some R.

Describe a particularly memorable experience you had in research, or something that you will take away from being involved in research?

Coming into Dr. Hoffer’s lab, I thought that research involved learning specific skills (like we learn in our classes) and exercising them to answer a question. While that is true, that’s not the only part of research. I learned that a large part of what makes research unique and interesting is being able to utilize your particular skillset (both things you learned inside and outside the classroom) to solve problems on the path to answering that question. When I was a teenager, I volunteered for a theatre company and helped edit videos of their performances. In Dr. Hoffer’s lab, part of our experimental procedure involved recording videos of participants and tracking their movements through a tracking program. However, starting and stopping the 6-camera system after each hole was a lot of work, so we ended up producing 2-hour-long whole-session videos that crashed the tracking program on import. My video editing knowledge allowed me to take the session-long video, chop it up into the 72 individual holes, then let it render overnight to produce easily-trackable video chunks.

What is one thing you learned about being involved in research that you didn’t expect?

I think my answer to the previous question answers this one as well, as the thing I learned about the nature of research was something I didn’t expect.

Keywords: Andy Hoffer, Aaron Siebenga, Tremor, Golf, Neurokinesiology Lab

From Bench-top to Bedside: Research Coordinator for the FLIP Study

"Through my experiences in the many labs that I was a part of over the years, I have realized that research involves lots of failure, and I have also grown to understand that failure is an inevitable and essential step on the path to success and discovery."


Name: Rania Khelifi


Year of Study: 5


Supervisor: Dr. Dawn Mackey


Lab: Aging and Population Health Lab (APHL)


Click to read more about Rania’s Research Experience

Research Experience

I took an interest in scientific research early on in my academic career. In my grade 12 year, I earned the opportunity as one of two students from my high school to attend Mini Med School seminars held by the former Child and Family Research Institute, which is now BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute. This one-of-a-kind experience led to a two-month internship in Dr. Laura Sly’s lab. Her research is focused on determining the role of macrophages and their potential to be used as therapies for patients with inflammatory bowel disease. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Institute and quickly realized that I would make it my priority to get involved in research during my undergraduate career at SFU. In my third year at SFU, I was awarded an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) with Dr. Charles Krieger whose lab conducts research that can help us better understand Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). I helped with the study of two proteins thought to interact using the larval neuromuscular junction of Drosophila as a model organism. Then I continued working in Dr. Krieger’s lab as a Directed Studies student where I took on a side project to optimize a cell fractionation protocol.

In my final year at SFU, I realized that I had a plethora of wet lab experience, and very little clinical research experience. After browsing the BPK research site, I came across Dr. Dawn Mackey’s profile and read about the important clinically oriented research on healthy aging and older adult mobility conducted by her lab. What particularly interested me in this lab, was the direct applicability of the research to helping older adults. In summer 2018, I spoke with Dr. Mackey about completing a Directed Studies course for the fall. During our meeting, we discussed not only a potential directed study, but also some paid research positions that were available in her lab. I opted to take on a 1-year role as Research Coordinator for the Flooring for Injury Prevention Study (FLIP). The FLIP Study is a randomized clinical trial that aims to determine whether compliant flooring is capable of preventing serious fall-related injuries in older adults living in long-term care (LTC). Upon its completion, the FLIP study will be the largest and the longest trial of compliant flooring for fall-related injury prevention. In my role as Research Coordinator, I oversee the work of two research assistants and all of the data collection for the study, which occurs at a local LTC home. During the fall 2018 semester, I also completed my second Directed Study course with Dr. Mackey, where I explored the effectiveness of hip protectors in preventing hip and other fractures in older adults living in LTC using data collected from the FLIP study. For more information regarding the APHL please visit:

As fate had it, my final semester at SFU (Spring 2019) has been spent conducting research in Dr. Tom Claydon’s lab as an NSERC USRA student. In Dr. Claydon’s lab, my project involves looking at the genomic stability and the expression of specific markers in induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs) and IPSC-derived cardiomyocytes.

What was something challenging or unique you have encountered through your research, and how did you overcome it?

What I found most challenging about working, as a Research Coordinator was the initial transition into the position when I started in September. The Coordinator before me had limited time to train me over the summer. It was difficult at first: determining priorities for the role, time allocation for tasks, and whether I was doing things correctly or not. Thankfully, Dr. Mackey and the previous Research Coordinator were very supportive and helpful. Dr. Mackey and I met up biweekly to discuss questions and concerns and to brainstorm solutions regarding both my new position and my Directed Studies. I quickly got a hold of things, implemented a new process to ensure efficiency and felt much more comfortable in my role. This was all thanks to the continued support of Dr. Mackey and the previous Coordinator who answered emails and was available to speak with me over FaceTime.

Describe a particularly memorable experience you had in research, or something that you will take away from being involved in research?

A particularly memorable experience was when I went out in the LTC home for the first time on my own to complete a room checklist. Room checklists are completed when a new resident moves into one of the rooms that are part of the study. As I was navigating through the LTC home and completing my checklists, I decided to stop somewhere in the hallway, out of the way of the residents, to double-check a form I had just completed. Out of nowhere, a resident snuck up on me from the back and asked me loudly “what are you doing?” I was terrified as I did not hear her coming and literally had just turned back to see if there was anyone in sight. It honestly felt like a scene out of a movie. I was frozen in my spot as it took a few seconds for me to process the situation. I recomposed myself so I could interact with her calmly and answer her questions. This experience really helped me understand that research is conducted in multiple settings, each with its own set of dangers and potential issues. Whether you are in a lab pipetting or in a LTC home completing room checklists, following proper procedures is necessary in helping you navigate different predicaments.

What is one thing you learned about being involved in research that you didn’t expect?

Through my experiences in the many labs that I was a part of over the years, I realized that research is all about failure! Although disappointing, failure plays such a crucial role as it allows you to reflect on what you did and brainstorm potential solutions to avoid the same outcomes in the future. I am proud to say that I experienced a lot of failure throughout my research experiences, whether it was optimizing a cell fractionation protocol or completing statistics on large amounts of data. I can say with great confidence (p<0.05) that failure is inevitable. However, failure, if met with curiosity and an open mind, can lead to some great results that will feel all the more satisfying considering all the work you had to put in to obtain them.

Keywords: Dawn Mackey, Rania Khelifi, Aging, Older Adult, Aging and Population Health Lab, Clinical Research

Clinical, Applicable, and Fascial: Experiences in BPK Anatomy Research

"Some of the best experiences of my Directed Studies project were the opportunities to share my work with other academics and professionals."


Name: Garrett Hughes


Year of Study: 4th


Supervisor: Dr. Leanne Ramer


Lab: Anatomy Teaching Lab


Click to read more about Garret’s Research Experience

Research Experience:

        In the early years of my undergraduate degree, I gained research experience by working as a Research Assistant for three years at Arthritis Research Canada (ARC). Working toward a career goal of physiotherapy, as I sought out more clinical experience, I realized the potential of a career that supplemented clinical practice with research. While enrolled in BPK 326 (Functional Anatomy) in Spring 2018, I approached Dr. Ramer regarding a potential literature-based Directed Studies project (BPK 496). Anatomy had quickly become my favourite course in BPK, which cemented my desire to pursue a career in physiotherapy.

        We discussed several potential project ideas, and ultimately decided to conduct a systematic review to examine what duration of foam rolling/roller massaging best promotes optimal improvements in recovery, range of motion, and athletic performance. This idea emerged from a lecture Leanne gave in 326 on the topic of fascia, highlighting the uncertainty in the literature, and how those studying fascia have yet to come to a consensus on its mechanical properties and clinical considerations. This research aligns with my goal of supplementing clinical practice with applicable, tangible research that can help guide client prescription.

        My experience in BPK 496 involved weekly meetings with Leanne to review my work and to help guide the direction I was heading with the project. After two-and-a-half months of work, I had a completed systematic review ready to be prepared for publication; after a few weeks of formatting and revisions, I submitted my first lead-author research article to a peerreviewed physiotherapy journal. I also created a poster for presentation at the SFU Undergraduate Research Journal (SURJ) 2018 poster competition, where I gave two ten minute presentations on my work to SFU Science Faculty.

Unique and/or challenging experiences in research
        The most significant challenge I faced was becoming stuck in a rut while reading and writing. I spent so many hours on the same topic, reading the same papers and writing in the same word document, that I sometimes lost sight of both the project’s bigger picture, and the flexibility to adapt as the scope of the project evolved. From my perspective, I had started with one topic and one goal, so every ounce of work I put in had to be in alignment with that initial topic or plan. It wasn’t until I asked an external physiotherapist to read a draft of my article that I was made aware of how stuck in the same lane I had become. For example, as my initial project included analyzing effects on athletic performance, I was determined to keep that aspect in my discussion and as a line in my conclusion. However, as the project evolved, it became clear that the data were insufficient to provide proper scientific commentary on the subject. This example was one of multiple that made the revision process take significantly longer than I initially estimated. Nonetheless, it emphasized to me the importance of collaboration throughout a project, not simply towards the end.

Most memorable highlights:
        Some of the best experiences of my Directed Studies project were the opportunities to share my work with other academics and professionals. I was not giving a presentation to fellow classmates, who were mainly listening because it was part of their course grade; rather, I was sharing my work to experts who were listening out of genuine interest. Unlike being a student discussing my coursework with a professor, I was treated as an academic colleague, by people asking questions from a place of curiosity. The people I shared my work with were excited about it, demonstrating their shared interest in improving existing bodies of evidence, no matter the topic. These experiences with research, and many others not included here, have solidified my goal of a multifaceted career in physiotherapy practice and research.

Keywords: Garrett Hughes, Leanne Ramer, Exercise, anatomy, fascia, mobility, recovery, physiotherapy