The next generation of rehab experts

The next generation of rehab experts

Program prepares UF scholars to become leaders in rehabilitation research

By Kathryn Stolarz

Donovan Lott, a researcher who studies Duchenne muscular dystrophy, works with Tucker Hart. Lott is one of several scholars who is part of the NIH-funded Rehabilitation Research Career Development Program at UF and the University of Texas Medical Branch.


Young boys are told to eat their vegetables so they can grow up to be big and strong.

But boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy don’t get much of a chance to grow up — most don’t survive past their 20s. And most don’t get to be big and strong — their muscles start deteriorating between ages 2 and 6, putting most of them in wheelchairs by their 12th birthdays.

Duchenne is a degenerative disease that causes muscles to waste away. In the 25 years since the Duchenne gene was discovered, researchers have found almost every form of therapy to be ineffective against the disease, leaving many discouraged.

One UF researcher is hopeful he can help. Donovan Lott, Ph.D., P.T., is pioneering research to find the optimal level of exercise for children with Duchenne to improve their muscle pathology and gait.

Physicians often err on the side of caution and discourage children with the disease from physical activity since their muscles are more susceptible to injury, said Lott, a research assistant professor of physical therapy in the College of Public Health and Health Professions. However, exercise might improve their cardiovascular health and decrease the rate of muscle deterioration, he said. For a young boy who wants more time to play ball with his dad, or at least stand on his own two feet, that’s a big deal.

“If a child is able to walk for one to two years longer before he gets into a wheelchair, that’s a huge thing,” he said.

Lott is carrying out his research through the Rehabilitation Research Career Development Program. He’s one of several occupational and physical therapy scholars at UF and the University of Texas Medical Branch who are in the program. They’re training to become independent investigators and leaders in rehabilitation research.

The National Institutes of Health jointly awarded a $4.6 million grant to UF and UTMB to establish the program. Krista Vandenborne, Ph.D., Lott’s mentor and chair of physical therapy, and William Mann, Ph.D., chair of occupational therapy, are leading efforts at UF.

The program has a lot to offer its scholars, including three years of protected research time, mentor guidance, grant-writing workshops and networking opportunities, specifically through an annual conference.

“These are all people that are go-getters, hard workers, and they’re ultimately going to make a huge impact in the field,” Vandenborne said.

Getting advice from leading experts through the program has been key to Lott’s research. At last year’s conference, Lott met Eric Hoffman, a world-renowned geneticist and neuromuscular disease expert, and got valuable feedback from him throughout the year.

Program scholar Stacey E. Reynolds, Ph.D., O.T.R./L., was excited to have met advisory panel member Mary Schneider at this year’s conference in Gainesville. Schneider, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of few occupational therapists in the world who does animal research like Reynolds.

Reynolds’ research is in identifying what triggers the spectrum of behavioral differences in children with autism.

“The program is a gift. It’s such a great opportunity to have the (protected research) time, the mentorship and the resources that are available at UF,” Reynolds said.