Face to Face: Charla Howard

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Charla Howard recently joined the staff at Methodist Rehabilitation Center, Jackson, Mississippi, as a prosthetic research associate. A biological engineering graduate out of Mississippi State University (MSU), Starkville, Howard is working toward a doctorate in bioengineering from Arizona State University, Tempe. She first became interested in O&P while still in high school. She was introduced to the orthotics field after suffering a major sports injury, and to prosthetics by witnessing the complications her uncle experienced with his prosthesis after he lost a leg to diabetes-related complications.

1. Describe what a prosthetic researcher does.

A prosthetic researcher attempts to answer questions about how prosthetic devices work and how they can best serve amputees. Much of the process revolves around thinking up the right questions to ask and developing a research plan that will most effectively get to an answer. The research can be primarily device centered (new product development) or primarily person centered. I try to keep my research somewhere in the middle. I work closely with prosthetists to discover what questions they want answered and to determine how to present findings in such a way that the data is useful to their practices.

2. What will be the applications of your research?

My focus is on lower-limb prostheses, particularly motion and gait analysis. I like discovering how amputees move and how the prosthetic device affects them.

Since I want my research to be clinically relevant, the primary application is to improve or validate clinical practice and provide clinicians with a better understanding of how amputees use their prostheses. My research will also provide information to product developers on how amputees move in everyday and special situations and how the device works with or against them.

3. How does a degree in biological engineering apply to prosthetic research?

Biological engineering is the study of biological systems, such as people, from an engineering standpoint. I studied the same type of things other engineers study, with either people or things that physically interact with people as subjects. I have a strong background in biomechanics, which helps me understand how people move and the forces involved in those movements. I also have an understanding of materials and how to study their properties. Those knowledge bases, along with a strong math and biology background, really are the perfect fit for studying amputees and prostheses.

4. What O&P-specific research topics do you feel are currently the most underserved?

The diabetic population is underserved. While individuals with diabetes make up the majority of the O&P patient population, they are often excluded from research studies, which typically use healthier subjects. I would also like to see more attention given to the pediatric population; however, the small population size hinders that area of research.

5. What are your personal and/or professional goals?

I want my research to impact and improve things in the prosthetic world. I also want to become a certified prosthetist. I think it will really advance my research and open doors for me to do some mission work as a clinician. In 2008, I led a group of college students on a two-month mission to Ghana, West Africa, where we built churches, worked in orphanages, visited schools, and held free medical clinics. As much as I love working in the field of prosthetics, my true love is doing mission work. I cannot wait until I am able to put both of my passions together.

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