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New Director of Spinal Cord Injury Research Is Driven to Make a Difference

Edelle Field-Fote, Ph.D., PT, will be joining the Shepherd Center staff on May 19.

Edelle Field-Fote, Ph.D., PT, who will become Shepherd Center’s director of spinal cord injury research on May 19, knew at the tender age of 14 that she wanted to help people overcome the physical obstacles that confronted them.

She was volunteering at a nursing home near her home in Auburn, Maine. During her shifts, she closely watched physical therapists working with patients.

“They were really hands-on, and I saw the patients make progress,” she recalled. “I thought some patients would never be able to get out of bed, but with physical therapy they did! It was incredible to think of making such a difference in someone’s life -- having that kind of impact seemed almost miraculous.”

So she set out to make her own difference.

After earning a bachelor's degree in physical therapy from the University of Miami, she worked as a physical therapist at a rehabilitation hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It was while working with people who had spinal cord injuries (SCI) that she decided she wanted to explore new ways to restore walking in people with such injuries. She later earned a master's degree in environmental health and safety from the University of Miami and a doctorate in movement science from Washington University in St. Louis.

For the past 20 years, Dr. Field-Fote has been pursuing that very goal, serving as director of the Neuromotor Rehabilitation Research Laboratory at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Now, she’s bringing her expertise to Shepherd Center.

“Dr. Field-Fote is internationally renowned for her work in motor recovery after spinal cord injury,” said Mike Jones, Ph.D., vice president for research and technology at Shepherd. “Not only is she a leading neuroscientist in her own right, but she is also very highly regarded as a mentor to young research scientists, including many of the emerging leaders in the field. We are thrilled to have her join our staff, and we’re excited about the direction she will take our SCI research program.”

 Dr. Field-Fote’s research has focused on restoring walking and hand function after SCI by making use of spinal pathways not damaged by injury. “The nervous system learns through experience,” she explained, “so we need to learn how to get the brain to better drive the information down to the remaining spinal pathways. We’re trying to build on what’s left. While the nervous system can’t make new motor neurons, it is possible to improve function by making new and stronger connections between the remaining neurons.”

Dr. Field-Fote will continue this research at Shepherd, but on a larger scale. “Shepherd is a world-class rehabilitation center. People come from all over the globe to access the excellent rehabilitation services. Having more people available to participate as subjects in research will allow me to expand the number and types of studies that I do, and this will increase rate at which we develop interventions to restore walking function and hand function for people with SCI.”

The caliber of professionals and commitment to collaboration also drew her to Shepherd Center. “There is an amazing group of researchers, as well as clinicians, at Shepherd who are interested in research,” she said. “So altogether, enthusiastic subjects, clinicians and researchers create an environment that makes Shepherd the perfect place for rehabilitation research.”

Dr. Field-Fote is inspired by seeing the results of her research make improvements in people’s lives. “Rehabilitation research is really exciting in that it impacts of lives of people today,” she said. “But it also has the potential to affect the lives of others in the future. While rehabilitation research doesn’t typically get the big press that things like stem cell research do, those types of repair strategies will only be effective when combined with excellent rehabilitation strategies. So, identifying the optimal rehabilitation approaches is critical for the success of all types of spinal cord injury research.”

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.