Physical therapy for co-op

Sep 9, 2009

Sam Perlmutter '06, Mechanical Engineering graduate of Kettering University and current Ph.D. fellow in the Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences at Northwestern University, created a one-of-a-kind professional cooperative education program that students would pay him to join.

Luck. A good word. Some might say that luck is the residue of skill. Others suggest that luck is something individuals simply stumble into blindly.

Sam Perlmutter doesn’t dwell on the sort of luck he’s had in his young engineering career. He appreciates it, but knows there’s a great deal of important work ahead of him, work that will one day help those who require rigorous physical therapy to overcome the issues that plague them.

But from an objective point of view, the luck Perlmutter has had in his career is the sort that one might never anticipate and must readily accept without hesitation.

In 2004, Perlmutter, feeling a bit unchallenged working as a student engineer at an automotive company, interviewed for a cooperative education position at Northwestern’s Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC, Founded in 1954, RIC has earned a worldwide reputation as a leader in patient care, advocacy, research and the education of health professionals in physical medicine and rehabilitation. But as luck would have it, the person he was scheduled to meet that day was called away unexpectedly. As a result, Perlmutter interviewed with Dr. Mohsen Makhsous, an assistant professor in the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s Dept. of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences, who was with the RIC at that time. As Perlmutter recalls, he didn’t know one thing about what RIC’s work comprised and was completely unsure how an ME student might contribute to this organization.

“Originally, I was to meet with Alicia Starr at RIC, who really pushed to bring in a co-op to help with the Center’s work,” he said, adding that the engineering background he brought to RIC, “was something she was interested in working into the organization’s research. Much of what we do here relies greatly on many engineering principles and theories. If it wasn’t for Alicia’s support and guidance to give biomedical research a chance, who knows what I might be doing today.”

Fast forward five years: Today, Perlmutter is engaged in a PhD program at Northwestern and believes he found his career calling. One of his primary projects is an effort that better understands the neurophysiology of trunk control in both healthy subjects, as well as individuals who have survived a stroke. These experiments involve subjects using real-time visual feedback from a six degree of freedom load cell to generate isometric force with an individual’s trunk in all directions while muscle activity is recorded using electromyographic (EMG) electrodes.

“In short, the trunk is biomechanically the most important ‘link’ in movement generation and stabilization. Thus, the trunk dysfunction as viewed post-stroke needs to be better understood using engineering methodology to improve rehabilitation practices,” Perlmutter explained. Most importantly, as an engineer, he feels the education and engineering approach is critical to rehabilitative research, since much of what an engineer does applies well to the study of movement science, particularly as it relates to the human body.

From March until June of this year, Perlmutter was pleased to have a second group of Kettering co-op students engaged in his research at Northwestern. One student—Junior Briana Reprogle of Noblesville, Ind., who majors in Applied Physics and Mechanical Engineering at Kettering University—worked on developing algorithms to analyze kinetics and kinematics of children riding tricycles to gain an understanding into how kids develop the skills necessary to properly stabilize and pedal efficiently. “This will help provide insight into enhancements for the trike that can help assimilate this learning process,” Perlmutter said.

Under the supervision of Perlmutter’s advisor, Mohsen Makhsous, Ph.D., Reprogle also helped work on a study that simulates pressure ulcers on both normal and spinal cord injury animal models.

“Since pressure ulcers are one of the main causes of death in people who suffer a spinal cord injury, our main objective is to prevent the development of pressure ulcers both internally and externally. Briana worked on a study that used an ultrasound probe and force sensor to help clinicians predict the occurrence of ulcers before they evolve to the skin surface. Once you see them on the skin, it’s too late,” Perlmutter said.

Kettering Junior Mike Bajema, an Electrical Engineering major from Zeeland, Mich., fabricated and designed electromechanical components for all of the department labs and worked extensively with Perlmutter and other researchers. He observed experiments in a lab related to movement generation in individuals with Parkinson’s disease. The research involved impairments in the basal ganglia and required a good understanding of neuronal biophysics for calculating conduction times of the nervous system as well as extremely advanced signal processing, which, according to Perlmutter, is the backbone of Electrical Engineering. 

Overall, Perlmutter is very pleased with Reprogle’s and Bajema’s work. “When we established our co-op program, we knew that the students who would join us must be the very brightest we could find and have a passion for this sort of work. They are very competent and dedicated, and have shown much more than we expected. When you have that kind of passion and dedication, it doesn’t feel like work,” he said.

Bajema and Reprogle agree.  

“It’s been just a great experience,” Bajema said, adding that he engaged in “a lot of projects and now I’m considering graduate studies because of this experience.”
“I always had a feeling that I wanted to study for my Ph.D. one day and now I’m even more interested in the biomedical field because of this co-op,” Reprogle said. “The diversity of projects is huge and the experience I’ve received in experimental design is excellent,” she added.

Dr. Julius Dewald, associate professor and chair of the Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences and an internationally recognized scholar in the field, is also pleased with the work of Kettering co-ops. After Perlmutter arrived and began research projects for the department, Dewald was impressed. So when Perlmutter approached Dewald with a well-thought out proposal to bring Kettering co-ops to the department, it still took considerable persuasion to make the program a reality.

“Initially, I didn’t have much knowledge about the Kettering program. Based on Sam’s experience within the department and his achievement at that point, I had confidence it would work,” Dewald said.

The department is considered one of the best in the country and is one of the few of its kind. Over the past three years, it has trained and graduated 70-76 therapists and utilizes an interdisciplinary approach. For example, many of the PhD candidates are engineers who receive exceptional exposure to clinical research opportunities, which helps synthesize engineering, technology and research. In addition, it is the first program of its kind to offer a dual doctoral degree in Physical Therapy and doctoral degree in Engineering. This, according to Perlmutter, is why Kettering students make exceptional candidates for the department.

Thus the reason why during recent cooperative education employment fairs at Kettering so many students lined up to meet and interview with Perlmutter. Many even said they would work for free just to have the experience gained through Northwestern.

“I interviewed a great many talented students,” Perlmutter said, noting that current funding supports two students at a time. “Everyone at Northwestern has just been great in working with the Kettering students. When their work terms ends, they don’t want to leave,” he added.

For now, Perlmutter and his colleagues at Northwestern continue to provide Kettering students an exceptional co-op experience. In the future, Perlmutter hopes to seek grant support to perhaps one day expand the program and continue building the relationship between the two schools.

To learn more about Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s Dept. of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences, visit To learn more about Kettering University’s cooperative education program, visit

Written by Gary Erwin