Disability Employment Awareness Month shines light on practical research, outreach in School of Kinesiology

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It’s no easy thing to rebuild a life or find a new purpose—especially after a tragedy. It’s not glamorous. In fact, this process is mostly excruciatingly hard work, filled with constant setbacks, day in and day out.

Fortunately, there are people who specialize in this rebuilding process, and they are at Auburn University. Leading these efforts in Auburn’s School of Kinesiology are Jaimie Roper, assistant professor and director of the Locomotor and Movement Control Lab, and Melissa Pangelinan, associate professor and director of the Pediatric Movement and Physical Activity Lab and Abilities Unlimited.

In their labs, the professors connect biomechanics and neuroscience to help those with disabilities and traumatic brain injuries find new function, capabilities and, ultimately, new lives.

“My goal has always been to train students and work with populations where we can have the most impact,” Roper said. “Particularly people with movement issues. I want to discover how they can move better, faster and more efficiently.”

“When I came to Auburn in 2015, I knew I didn’t want to just be in my office, doing research that a handful of people are going to read and benefit from,” Pangelinan said. “I wanted to be involved in community-based research with people who need our help.”

In short, Pangelinan and Roper conduct research designed to help people where they are—today. And they teach their students to do the same.

School of Kinesiology graduate students Matt Beth, Cole Burton and Mary Grayson Nix know this firsthand. As an undergraduate at Iowa State University, Beth experienced a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, and subsequent physical disabilities after falling from a three-story building. Burton was hit by a motorist outside of Birmingham while on an Auburn geology class field trip, and as a collegiate student-athlete, Nix experienced a career-ending concussion and head injury during a soccer game.

Each of these students has a different story, background and experience but what unites them is the experience of a traumatic injury and loss, and subsequently, finding hope and healing as they rebuild their lives at Auburn.

Matt Beth

Before his fall, Beth was experiencing the very best of college life as the president of his fraternity, a regular on the Dean’s List and thriving with his friends and girlfriend. This all changed in 2016.

Moving to Auburn represented a milestone in Beth’s recovery. His physical ailments include the inability to walk, talk or move his left arm or leg. He communicates by typing with one finger. But his disabilities haven’t limited his academic success.

“After spending two years solely focused on my rehabilitation in the aftermath of my TBI, I came to live in Auburn with my dad and stepmom,” Beth said. “I then spent the next year disproving people who told me I could never return to college.”

He graduated Suma Cum Laude from Auburn in 2020 and then completed a master’s degree in exercise science in 2021.

“My doctors told me that I would never finish my undergraduate degree,” he said. “During my undergraduate endeavors, I had Dr. Christopher Wilburn as a teacher. He took me under his wing and encouraged me to pursue graduate school. This was a defining moment for me because this was the first time since my TBI — which happened four years earlier — that someone outside of my family saw past my injury to see potential in me.”

Beth is now a graduate research assistant in Roper’s lab and pursuing a Ph.D.

“I have already learned a great deal about movement disorders, neurodegenerative diseases and the connection between neuroscience and biomechanics from her and I am very much looking forward to learning more from her in the coming years,” he said. “I have also found myself applying the concepts to my own exercises to make them more useful to me.”

Roper focuses on a variety of populations in her lab, including disabled veterans, people with ACL injuries and older populations, particularly those with Parkinson’s disease or essential tremor disorder, which is often confused with Parkinson’s.

“Each of these populations is different but what ties them together is that all of the issues involve the orthopedic system or the musculoskeletal system and require the brain and the nervous system to produce effective and healthy movement,” she said. “We gain valuable insights into this from Matt and Cole and their own experiences, as well as their unique perspectives of these cases—perspectives we would never have had without them.”

It’s Beth’s perspective and experiences with a TBI and rehabilitation that make him uniquely qualified to make a difference in the lives of participants in Roper’s research.

“My goals for working with people with TBIs are twofold: first, I’d love to contribute work aimed at improving the physical rehabilitation of people living with a brain injury,” he said. “Second, I simply just want to be a role model for other TBI survivors and essentially show them that I am living proof that they can still live a successful and meaningful life, even despite their injury.”

Cole Burton

With two alumni parents as a guide, Burton began his predetermined Auburn career in 2015. Thriving in Naval ROTC, he made friends and memories, including being on the field as a member of the Color Guard during the 2017 Iron Bowl and SEC Championship football games. He planned to begin a career as an officer in the U.S. Navy and as he prepared for his senior year, Burton’s future was set. Until it wasn’t. His path took a tragic turn in May 2018. Three weeks after being struck by a car, he woke from a coma and began his long, improbable road to recovery.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t very cognitively aware or present mentally,” he said. “I started off not verbal, not mobile and I couldn’t eat, drink or swallow.”

As Burton worked his way through hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, his goal was to regain what he had lost. He achieved many milestones, including completing the famed Atlanta Peachtree Road Race in 2019—just one year after he watched the same race from a wheelchair outside of the Shepherd Center.

But even with all the progress, he was not content. It was then that his father suggested contacting Auburn’s School of Kinesiology. And that’s when his second Auburn story began.

“I didn’t think they’d want to work with someone who had my abilities at the time,” he said. “But they met us with an overwhelming response. It wasn’t just my journey anymore—they took my goals and made them theirs.”

For seven months, Burton worked with Roper and her graduate students, exceeding his movement and fitness goals, including passing the Navy’s fitness test.

“I found out a few weeks after I passed that I was medically disqualified from the military, so that was a hard blow,” he said. “But that’s when Dr. Roper approached me about graduate school and working in her lab.”

Last December, he completed what he describes as the most important walk since his injury—across the stage in Jordan-Hare Stadium to receive his diploma. Today, he is a graduate teaching assistant in the same lab he restarted his Auburn journey. There’s a symmetry to his experience that isn’t lost on anyone—including his professor.

“We’ve learned so much from Cole,” Roper said. “And now to see him as such an important part of our lab, using his experiences and the knowledge he’s gained to aid in our research and help others—it’s really wonderful.”

Life has changed for Burton but he’s ok with that. He wears his resiliency like a badge of honor and hopes to share all he’s learned with others as he moves forward.

“My overarching goal is to help others in the same way I was helped,” he said. “I just want to help people achieve their goals and to get back to where they can move again. Movement is medicine. I learn the truth of that more every day. I want to help other people realize that truth, too.”

Mary Grayson Nix

Soccer was never just a hobby for Nix—from the age of 3, it was her ambition.

“I grew up in a great family home. I had the opportunity to play sports at an early age and absolutely loved it,” she said. “I always wanted to be like my older brother who loved soccer so of course, I loved soccer, too.”

She played collegiate-level soccer at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and injuries were just part of the package. Nix had multiple ankle and knee surgeries and six concussions. She always recovered and got back out there. But in 2010, a devastating concussion ended her soccer career, forced her to withdraw from school and set up years of recovery from the physical, mental and emotional repercussions of her head injury.

“With my ankle and knee injuries, people could tell I was injured, but with this head injury, I looked like I was fine,” she said. “I wasn’t just having issues with my brain, my emotions were also all over the place, my memory wasn’t the same. I had vertigo and balance issues.”

She knew it. Her family knew it. She had changed. In the following years, Nix went to numerous doctors and began to think her whole world would be refilling prescriptions and going to medical appointments. That’s when she began to explore other options.

“I didn’t want to live like that,” she said. “I was becoming a totally different person and one day, I just said, ‘No more.’”

Nix came to Auburn in 2018 to restart her life. She met with Auburn’s kinesiology professors Roper and Pangelinan and found hope, inspiration and a new path. Today, her approach to health is holistic—mind, body and soul.

“Cole and Mary Grayson are prime examples of the work of our lab,” Pangelinan said. “They understand what it is like to deal with a head injury and the challenges that come from it. They’ve worked through tough physical rehabilitation and interventions. They know that no two cases will look the same and they’re committed to working with each participant to find the right outcomes for each one.”

This is the mission of Pangelinan’s lab—to have real impact in real people’s lives.

And she has done just that. Pangelinan’s work and research into adapted physical activity as neurological rehabilitation is already producing results. She has created partnerships throughout campus and with numerous national and community-based programs.

“I’m a neuroscientist. So measuring neurological outcomes along with health and motor skill outcomes is very important,” she said. “We will continue to build our programs to identify evidence-based practices that improve physical health, but also those that improve mental health and brain health in individuals with acquired and developmental disabilities.”

In addition to conducting research and interventions to help participants, she and her graduate students create adapted programming to provide the resources community partners and participants need.

“It’s great to be able to help people in any capacity,” she said. “But I don’t want to just be able to help the people who come to my lab. At the end of the day, I want them to be able to use the resources in the community and for our community to be able to sustain these programs.”

This purpose resonated with Nix.

“In the aftermath of my head injury and all the changes that followed was a process of figuring out who I am again,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had a purpose anymore. One of my main problems was confidence and figuring out who I was without soccer. Exercise and in particular, yoga, helped me so much. But it wasn’t until I found Dr. Pangelinan and her lab that I learned to put myself out there.”

Through Nix’s work in the lab, she has learned to work effectively with participants who need the help and healing that movement and exercise can bring to their lives. She has helped scale-up the virtual exercise programs for others with TBIs across the state, in partnership with the Alabama Head Injury Foundation. Among her many roles, including her graduate work, personal training and yoga instruction, she is also the health and wellness coordinator for the EAGLES program and works with students—all of whom have intellectual disabilities—to build healthy lifestyles and grow in their health and fitness pursuits.

“A lot of the work we do with adults with disabilities is teaching them different skills,” she said. “We focus on a different skill every semester—biking, swimming, tennis, baseball, soccer and exercise. Right now, we’re helping to improve fine motor skills. It’s these skills that will help them with their activities of daily living to reach their goals, including maintaining meaningful employment.”

In many ways, Nix has come full circle. She has found her passion and purpose again—this time, in helping others with disabilities, head injuries or other challenges.

“I found strength and hope in this work and in Dr. Pangelinan’s lab,” she said. “I found myself growing as a person with more confidence than I’ve ever had. And now, through her work and lab, I’m able to give that back to so many who need it.”

October is Disability Employment Awareness Month. Through programs like EAGLES and the research and work of Roper’s and Pangelinan’s labs, Auburn’s College of Education is rapidly becoming a leader in disability research, outreach and instruction, helping people with physical and intellectual disabilities find meaningful work, activities and experiences.

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