Blending Academic Backgrounds Bolsters Research

When senior health science majors Kelly Hernandez and Melissa Adrian set up the sonogram to explore joints, it’s another reminder that everything connects in science. As they experiment with equipment settings to capture movement of their arms and legs, they’re training to observe the cervical spine and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) — the points the jaw connects to the skull.

Working with physical therapy professor David Dominguese, who developed the study along with former Bradley professor Bre Reynolds ’01, the kinesiology/health science students hope to help find a physical therapy-based way to manage jaw pain. Also involved on the project were three DPT graduate students, Adam Wade, Brianna Heyer and Alecsander Dutko, who investigated the therapy applications.

 The sonograph provides a cost-effective method to observe the TMJ that also gives a view of real-time movement instead of still images offered by MRI studies. This allows for wider use as MRIs are usually limited to hospital settings.

“When we actually do a live image we can see changes,” Dominguese said. “This is another way therapists and others can use ultrasound imaging to help evaluate and treat patients. Instead of just talking about it, you can see it happening.”

He added the pandemic was a challenge, but techniques were developed to incorporate precautions.

Past academics led the students to bring unique interests to the table. Hernandez started at Bradley as a biomedical engineering major. She originally thought her path into medicine would be as a prosthetics designer. However, a summer physical therapy observation experience changed her course. As much as she enjoyed behind-the-scenes engineering, Hernandez realized it would be better to be out front directly helping patients.

Adrian was set on PT from the start, but like Hernandez, a summer experience shifted her academic route. An internship with a juvenile detention center opened her eyes to big-picture cultural concerns that could relate to medicine, so she added a sociology major to her studies.

Now as PT researchers interested in caring for others, Hernandez brings her technical knowledge while Adrian sees the humanistic perspective. Both are scheduled to start the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Bradley this summer.

“I have both worlds present at once, though I see the world mechanically,” Hernandez said. “During my summer experiences, I saw the health and caring aspects, but as I watched PT’s treat their patients, I was looking at the body — how jumping affects knees or joints or why they have to do exercises a certain way. That extra background helps us realize the ‘why.’”

Dominguese added having diverse academic backgrounds is a benefit. “I think we have a good opportunity for all different disciplines to collaborate.”

Beyond the hope of advancing the field, the two undergraduate researchers recognized the value of the studies. With so much time in the health science program dedicated to observations and internships, it’s a chance to have a hand in PT’s future.

“As researchers, we get to see everything firsthand, unlike observations everyone is doing,” Hernandez said. “It’s not just reading about cool research people are doing; you’re actually partaking in it.”