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Training

Aaron Yurkewich

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?
A: I am Biomedical Engineering PhD Student in Rehab Robotics at the University of Toronto. My supervisor is Dr. Alex Mihailidis and I work at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. Developing our knowledge in robotics and the application of robots to health care are my main areas of interest. I completed my Bachelors’ Degree at Western University, in Mechanical Engineering. I spent my summers as an NSERC student in Dr. Rajni Patel’s surgical robotics lab, where I created force and shape sensing robotic catheters and concentric tube robots for safe automated and tele-operated neuro and cardiac surgery. I completed my Masters in Electrical Engineering in this lab as well, where I developed a lower limb stroke rehabilitation robot that is portable and cost-effective, and a gaming environment for highly engaging therapy. Now, I am designing hand & wrist exoskeletons for in-home stroke rehabilitation and assistance in daily life, and will be testing their efficacy and effectiveness with stroke survivors.

Q: What compelled you to pursue stroke research?
A: There’s nothing like it! In stroke research I work with exceptional researchers, therapists, stroke survivors, and industry partners on projects that have direct impact on so many peoples’ lives. The time between device design and user feedback is so quick that we can truly give end-users control of their own research. Also, stroke research is a highly engaging environment for me, with such multi-disciplinary activity that I am constantly learning, and using my creativity and experience to contribute to multiple projects.

Q: What is the focus of your research?
A: Chronic stroke survivors with severe hand and wrist impairment need high intensity training in functional tasks relevant to their daily life to see useful recovery results. Wearable robots can provide the resistance and assistance needed to optimize the challenge level during exercise, and provide assistance throughout daily life to practice the real-world application of these exercises. Through iterative therapist- and patient-centred system design, a robot will be developed for affordable in-home tele-rehabilitation.

Q: At what stage are you in your research, and what are your future plans?
A:
 Currently I am in the first year of my PhD, designing, prototyping and testing wearable robotic orthosis prototypes with stroke survivors and therapists. Our group will then assess the usability, efficacy, and generalizability of this device for stroke populations in out-patient care and long-term care facilities. We will learn the effects of high intensity physical rehabilitation in highly-engaging environments on stroke recovery, and look to incorporate therapy technologies and imaging techniques developed within the CPSR to further improve recovery for a broader stroke population.
After completing my PhD, I hope to pursue an academic career in neurorehabilitation and robotics, as a post-doctoral student, researcher, and faculty member. In these roles I will grow the academic and industrial partnerships formed through the CPSR (Canadian Partnership in Stroke Recovery), AGE-WELL NCE (Aging Gracefully across Environments using Technology to Support Wellness, Engagement and Long Life Networks of Centres of Excellence), and UHN (University Health Network). My focus will be to develop commercializable technology, and use this technology to directly help those affected by stroke and further our understanding of recovery.

Q: How do you and others benefit from being part of the National Trainee Association?
A:
 As part of the CPSR National Trainee Association, I am presented with many opportunities to broaden my research and gain field-specific knowledge to progress quickly through difficult tasks. As a research project steers me into a new research field, there is always an expert in that field to seek advice from. Through the mentor-mentee program I will learn from experienced researchers how to accomplish project milestones efficiently, and stay focused on answering key research questions. In the Stroke Partnership in Neurorecovery (SPIN) CPSR network I am able to interact with graduate students with comprehensive knowledge on specific subjects, which is essential to discovering new collaboration avenues. There are also trainee-specific awards that reduce personal financial anxieties so the effort can remain focussed on improving stroke recovery.

Q: What other interests do you have?
A:
 I have taken on many teaching and mentorship roles in the past, as a teaching assistant, university club mentor, and senior research student and am very interested to take part in building the technical and research skills of future engineers and researchers. I am a cofounder of the Western Engineering FIRST Robotics mentorship program, which teaches over 400 high-school students annually how to work in collaborative teams to design, build and code robots, and interact with industry to gain sponsorship and make business plans. Throughout my graduate studies I have mentored multiple undergraduate researchers through the literature review, ideation, implementation and writing stages of research projects to complete key publications. I have also been proactive in making video tutorials to promote global learning in engineering subjects. The CPSR provides new opportunities to facilitate mentorship within health care research, through the Trainee Seminar Series, SPIN workshops and networking events, and this is definitely a network I am excited to be a part of.