Meet Kristine Cowley, the new UM Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Function and Health after Spinal Cord Injury.
December 16, 2020
Kristine Cowley, the new UM Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Function and Health after Spinal Cord Injury, is an assistant professor, physiology and pathophysiology, Max Rady College of Medicine, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, and Director of the Spinal Cord Research Centre. She was awarded a Tier 2 CRC, which comes with $500,000 in funding over five years, from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. UM Today caught up with her to learn a bit about her and the research she is undertaking.
Tell us about your research.
The spinal cord is like the bandleader who keeps the band members playing together, on time and in the proper sequence so that the music doesn’t go off the rails and start to sound awful. It is responsible for initiating and coordinating our movements, how intensely we can exercise because it controls how we sweat, increasing our heart rate and all the other functions needed to maintain ongoing movements. When you sustain a spinal cord injury (SCI), all these functions are either lost or disordered. My research has three main themes or areas, all focused on increasing health, function and life quality after SCI: to increase the exercise capacity and health benefits of exercise in those living with SCI, to identify means to activate spinal neurons ‘below injury’ to increase function and exercise responses after SCI, and to identify strategies to reduce the currently inevitable musculoskeletal deterioration that occurs after SCI and that leads to many health problems (like bone fracture, pressure ulcers, obesity and type II diabetes). For each research theme, I have – and will continue to – translate new knowledge findings for use by those living with SCI in Canada, and beyond.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am not new to the UM, I am a ‘home-grown’ researcher, which in my area of research interest provides some benefits as I am aware of the policies, supports and resources available within the healthcare and wider community for people living with spinal cord injury. In particular, I sustained a spinal cord injury at age 20 and have been living with cervical level tetraplegia since then.
I competed at an international level in wheelchair track, including setting two world records and receiving three medals at the Barcelona Paralympics in 1992 (under the surname Harder). As such, this experience gave me a unique insight into the impact of SCI on motor performance, beginning with observations of how my and fellow SCI athletes’ performances were severely impaired by our ‘autonomic status’, including an inability to increase heart rate or sweat. This insight and my motor control research led me to create a new conceptual framework to explain the integration between spinal locomotor-related neurons that produce movement and spinal autonomic-related neurons that control metabolic and homeostatic body functions needed to support ongoing movement (exercise).
In addition, I served for three years as Executive Director of the Manitoba division of the Canadian Paraplegic Association, which provided insight into the myriad problems and SCI-related complications experienced by people living with SCI. This non-academic professional experience also served to increase my understanding of the policies, supports available for persons trying to re-integrate into the wider community and return to full community participation. It also made me aware of many of the shortcomings that exacerbate many of the secondary health complications commonly experienced by persons living with SCI. As such, finding better ways to translate new knowledge into either healthcare, social policy, or individual practice is key to improving the outcomes of persons living with SCI, and that is why knowledge translation has been a foundation of what I have done for several years as it relates to spinal cord injury-specific research and policy information.
What does CRC funding mean to you as a researcher?
As a researcher, the tremendous value of the CRC is to provide multi-year and stable funding that provides continuity and the ability to develop research themes that simply cannot be met within one or two-year research grant timelines. It means that rather than spending my efforts writing multiple grant applications, I have some consistent baseline funding to enable research in more complicated areas. As a pleasant side effect, it also signifies that my work has been externally evaluated and determined to be of significance to my research field. The value of this is in increasing my ability to attract external research funding, which is essential to advancing research in our current funding climate.
How did you feel when you learned you were awarded your Canada Research Chair?
First, I was very excited. It’s a great deal of work to go through this process and format your information and contributions in a way that would have meaning to someone outside your research field and also to those not involved in research. Also, because I fit into the group of researchers that has been trained and disciplined to not ‘over-value’ my contributions, I tend to write with a very conservative view, tending to ‘undervalue’ my own contributions, whereas the type of application required of the CRC program requires one to leave no doubt as to the strength of the applicant and I find it difficult to write in this way. Nonetheless, it was a valuable experience, because I came away with a strengthened view and sense of my contributions to the health and life quality of Canadians living with SCI, as well as how this research might affect the health and lives of those living without injury as well.
What inspires you?
I guess I am a naturally curious person. I want to know ‘how the story turns out’ and really enjoy analyzing data and thinking about ‘what it means.’ I am not so much interested in the details of a particular phenomena or cellular pathway, but rather I want to know ‘how the system works.’ How do we communicate to the body tissues that support ongoing movement, like the heart or sweat glands, when we start walking or running, and what spinal neural pathways are key to these functions? Why are they impaired by SCI, even when they can make rhythmic exercise movements? I want to know, at a spinal neural mechanism-level and a spinal cord communication-level is ‘what is the purpose of the spinal cord?’ Why is it so important and what does it tell us about the basic organization of the nervous system? What commonalities are there between species, and how can we use these commonalities to better the health and lives of those living with damage to their spinal cords?
What about you would people find surprising?
I really don’t know. Perhaps that, despite my apparent inadequacies in the artistic realm, I continue attempting to draw or work with other media to increase my creative abilities. Even if I never succeed at advancing my creative talent, I find the time spent in these pursuits of value because they help clarify and focus my ability to create within the basic science research realm.
Do you have any advice for students/young grad students starting their career?
Yes, the current research climate is extremely tough. If you wish to succeed you have to have a strong work ethic, luck (or being in the right place at the right time), the ability to receive critical feedback and resistance to letting failure stop you from continuing on your path. It will be very rare that everything you thought would happen in research actually does, and you need to be carefully prepared to recognize and document these differences and to try to make sense of them.
Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.