Thursday August 2, 2012

Rising from a Fall

Her father's struggle with cancer inspired Renee Beach to examine how transitions between surfaces affect balance and prevent injuries from falls.

During a physical therapy appointment to help her father mitigate the paralysis brought on by a brain tumor, Renee Beach noticed he had to navigate a number of pitfalls and hazards just getting from his car to the therapy room.

"Walking from his car through the waiting room, to the hallway, to the therapy room had four or five transitions (from one surface to another)," said Beach, a Dayton Carroll High School graduate from Beavercreek, Ohio. "Some of the surfaces were novel compliant, or floors that reduced the force of falls, and some weren't.

"I wanted to see if transitioning between surfaces makes a difference in balance. If it does, then I want to find novel compliant flooring that doesn't impair balance. There has to be an ideal floor somewhere."

The National Science Foundation will help Beach find that ideal surface by funding her next three years of graduate studies, a value of more than $120,000. Beach won a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship for outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. The foundation's goal is to develop a diverse pool of future engineers.

Beach's focus will be on hospitals and nursing homes, where she noted residence rooms that pose fall risks are moving towards compliant flooring such as SofTile or other soft surfaces. But then patients have to go into a Linoleum-covered hallway.

In addition to researching whether transitioning between surfaces affects balance, Beach will examine the best surfaces on which to fall based on the balance results and which floors best displace the force of a fall.

Beach originally wanted to study human factors, or how people interact with technology, but she shifted to biomechanics and more "human-centered needs" after her father got sick. She would like to teach in college or work in prosthetics.

"I want to be able to help somebody," she said. "This is a way I can — engineering."

Beach is the one of three University of Dayton students who have received NSF graduate research fellowships the last two years. All are conducting research in the School of Engineering's Wellness and Safety Lab run by Kim Bigelow, an assistant professor in the biomedical engineering graduate program.

Erin Sutton's grant is for her fall prevention work. Her work differs from Beach's, as Beach puts it, "She finds ways to help prevent falls. If there is going to be a fall, I want to find a way to prevent injuries." In 2010, Sutton researched the best ways for the elderly to carry grocery bags and presented Minimizing Postural Instability When Carrying Load: The Effects of Carrying Grocery Bags on the Elderly at the American Society of Biomechanics meeting.

Last year, Senia Smoot earned an NSF fellowship for her research on the effectiveness of assistive devices for children with autism.      

For more information, contact Shawn Robinson, associate director of news and communications, at 937-229-3391 or