Samuel Merritt University’s Motion Analysis Research Center Educates Across Disciplines

Inside Samuel Merritt University’s Motion Analysis Research Center (the MARC), students from several disciplines have the opportunity to integrate motion analysis into their health science curricula. Prof. Drew Smith specializes in gait analysis—that is, walking—and works with physical therapy, occupational therapy, and podiatry students. He’s watched these students learn from each other in the MARC, and form new perspectives on how broad knowledge of movement can impact clinical practices.


What can students expect to accomplish in the MARC?

One of the things the people who designed this lab and who ultimately hired me had in mind was that they weren’t going to refer to this as just a gait analysis lab. They wanted it to be a motion analysis lab. So we do many things here. We study balance; we’re looking at developing a balance assessment and falls prevention program for older adults. We also look at sports and sports medicine, which is another topic of interest among some of our faculty partners and an area we’d like to develop more. From the student’s perspective, they will not only have the opportunity to engage in these processes and to learn from them, but they also have opportunities to work with students from other programs.


What do you do at the MARC that similar labs at other institutions don’t do?

Labs such as this are typically associated with a single department. So at most institutions, the focus would be largely in, say, physical therapy, possibly podiatry, and it’s fairly unusual to see a lab like this in occupational therapy. What’s unique at Samuel Merritt is that the MARC—and this is one of the better-equipped labs, certainly in California—doesn’t belong to any given department. This is a university initiative that combines the interests of those three host departments: the Department of Physical Therapy, the Department of Occupational Therapy, and the California School of Podiatric Medicine. Bringing together these three different but related disciplines makes this place unique. I’ve worked around the world and never come across a lab that was this sort of joint effort, and I think this is a healthy way to approach research. This way we really see things from different perspectives.


What are some of the questions students typically have when they come to you?

Students typically come to us under two guises. One will be, “Gee, I really would like to do some research but I don’t really know what I want to do; how can I get involved?” In that case, we—I and the lab manager, Dr. Stephen Hill—will work with students to develop something within their interest, or we will offer them an opportunity to join an ongoing project. On the other hand, we have a number of students who have very definite ideas about what they want to achieve. For instance, they’re taught in podiatry a certain way of taping a foot to limit excessive motion, and they would like to know: Does this work? So we will develop small research projects for those students that will investigate a taping technique or certain kind of orthotic.

Also, we have students who may have patients with, say, diabetes, and those patients may develop certain conditions related to that. The questions there are: How does this affect the way they move, the way they walk, the way they balance themselves? So these kinds of questions that are related to a student’s practice are what attracts them to the lab and makes them want to work with us.


What should prospective students do who have an interest in motion analysis?

First and foremost, we recommend that they look for a faculty mentor. Many students do come in here on their own, and we will work with them directly. But I’m not a clinician—I don’t hold a clinical license and neither does Stephen, although we’ve worked with clinicians for many, many years. So we feel more comfortable when there’s a faculty member from a student’s host department or school who can provide that kind of clinical expertise.

In the case of the occupational therapy students, they have a formal research program that they undergo as part of their master’s program, and the MARC is part of that. In the case of podiatry and physical therapy, we’re looking at more informal, noncredit-based activities at present. It would be the student’s own initiative, or possibly wanting to work with a particular faculty member, and it would be on their own time. They don’t necessarily get credit, but it’s something that would show up on their resumés, particularly if they are fortunate enough to be co-author of a paper or presentation at a conference.


How can the MARC serve practicing clinicians in the Bay Area?

The reasons ordinary clinics are not in a position to do extensive types of gait analysis has always been: 1) there’s a certain cost involved with it that many clinics couldn’t afford, because of the technology we use, and 2) time. In the past, it might take a couple of days to turn around the data. Nowadays, with the technology we have, we can get almost instantaneous results.

The important thing about this lab is that it’s available and can be made available for community-based clinicians, and it’s possible to add this to their repertoire of what they can offer their patients. We currently are at the very entry level to this type of service provision, but we would like to see the MARC play a role in community outreach.


How is the research you do different today from a generation ago?

It all comes down to technology. When I look back to when I was a graduate student, we would record our activities using cine film and typically have one single camera, and the film would have to be processed and then digitized manually. The turnaround between a single session in a lab and a patient getting usable feedback could be as much as a week. Nowadays we have multicamera systems that are video-based and operate at high speed, and we can provide a patient with a report before they leave the lab.

This explosion of technology has now gone into smartphone-based applications, where we use video from a phone. We’re looking at these inertial monitoring units consisting of a single sensor attached to one segment of the body that can provide real-time, three-dimensional motion through a wireless connection where you can collect data from as much as 100 meters away. And this movement of technology towards smaller, faster, more lightweight, and more remote is just going to continue. I can see a time when subjects and patients will wear sensors 24/7 and we’ll be gathering information on their daily activities across a week or a month or a year without their having to come into the lab all that frequently. New technology is going to drive the agenda for the foreseeable future.


Samuel Merritt University,  3100 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 1-800-607-6377,

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