The vibrant, diverse neuroscience community at Illinois is working to find solutions to some of today’s most pressing societal health challenges in fields including aging; learning, memory and plasticity; nutrition and cognition; neuroengineering; neuro-and socio-genomics; bioinformatics; and more. More than 300 faculty and staff on the Urbana-Champaign campus identify as researchers in the neuroscience space—regardless of their home department affiliation. These researchers are using leading-edge imaging tools, pioneering studies that progress from the lab to clinical applications with the goal of improving the health and lives of people everywhere.
Laura Rice, PhD
Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Community Health
Professor Rice’s research interests are in the area of disability and health. She is specifically interested in the prevention of secondary impairments (e.g. psychosocial function) associated with disability to maximize quality of life and community participation among wheelchair users. A related interest is in examining education techniques to enhance functional mobility, prevent falls and secondary impairments, and effectively utilize assistive technology to promote health and well-being among individuals with disabilities.
Explain your research in neuroscience, in a nutshell.
The focus of my research is to enhance quality of life and community participation among wheelchair users. This area of research is needed to facilitate living well with a disability. As a result of improvements in medical technology and advances, the number of individuals living with a disability which limits functional mobility is increasing. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, 3.6 million adults use a wheelchair or a scooter. Wheelchairs are utilized to perform necessary activities of daily living and leisure activities in the home and community. While work has progressed quickly to improve the physical health of wheelchair users, research on the psychosocial aspects of health and well-being has progressed at a slower rate. Wheelchair users frequently report diminished quality of life and community participation. Only 8.3 percent of older community-dwelling wheelchair users report physically participating in the community compared to 88.9 percent of age-matched ambulatory individuals (Best and Miller, 2011). Of wheelchair users of all ages, 46.8 percent report they would like to increase societal participation, but face many significant barriers (Carlson and Keer, 2002). My research is important to help wheelchair users achieve personal and professional goals and live well with their disability.
How are you currently conducting your research?
I am currently conducting a randomized clinical trial to examine the influence of a comprehensive fall prevention intervention among wheelchair user living with multiple sclerosis (MS). Falls are very common among wheelchair users with MS, can result in significant physical injuries and often prevent users from participating in activities they enjoy doing. Our research team has partnered with researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Shepherd Center in Atlanta, GA. The education intervention targets a wide variety of risk factors associated with falls among wheelchair users. In addition, the program promotes community participation and empowers participants to use their new skills to engage in activities that they may have been previously fearful or unable to perform. My research lab has also partnered with a leading wheelchair manufacturer to examine the influence of newly developed wheelchair technology on performance of functional activities, user satisfaction, and quality of life.
How does being part of the broader Illinois research community support and enhance your work?
The connections I have developed at Illinois and support received has changed the way that I examine the concept of participation and what it means to live well with a disability. I have worked closely with researchers in my home department of Kinesiology and Community Health, Engineering, Psychology, Communication, and Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES). I enjoy working with a variety of professionals and combining our areas of expertise to development and implement high quality research that can effectively change the lives of individuals with disabilities. Interdisciplinary research is what is truly needed to move this field forward, and I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to work with these experts.
In what ways to you envision your work improving society or reaching people?
I envision my research empowering individuals with disabilities to participate in their desired activities, have the confidence to make choices that serve their interests, and have access to cutting-edge technology that can make these desires possible.
Do you have a personal story or path that led to your interest in this particular area of research?
I started my career as a physical therapist and was initially interested in sports medicine. However, after working with individuals with spinal cord injuries in an inpatient rehabilitation facility, I observed the positive impact I was able to have and enjoyed the process of supporting individual goals. As a result, I switched my focus to work with individuals with neurologic impairments. During my clinical work, I was fortunate to work at a teaching hospital and frequently collaborated with clinical researchers. Through my interactions, I became interested in clinically-based research and felt that I would be able to “do more” for my clients. Clinical research provides me the time and resources to investigate the various problems I’ve seen first-hand from my clients. In addition, I have the ability to contribute to the development of evidenced-based treatment methodologies to facilitate the achievement of the goals set by my clients.