Numaira Obaid on her passion for health research and investigating older adult spinal cord injuries

AUTHOR(S) & CREDENTIALS: Numaira Obaid, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Simon Fraser University and Karolina Jalowska, Digital Media Coordinator at the APPTA hub and AGE-WELL NCE


Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I always knew I wanted to do something in the field of healthcare or helping others be healthy. I completed my undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo and then pursued my Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, in understanding the mechanical behavior of complex materials using simulations and models. During my Ph.D. studies, I also worked as the Lead Research Scientist at an Ontario-based start-up called Steadiwear Inc., helping in the development of a mechanical glove for older adults with Essential Tremor and Parkinson’s disease.

After moving to British Columbia, I worked in the manufacturing industry, but my interest in biomechanics remained in the background. I left my industrial position and joined Simon Fraser University as a postdoctoral fellow under the supervision of Dr. Carolyn Sparrey. This position has given me the perfect opportunity to apply my expertise in computational modeling to study the mechanisms by which a spinal cord injury occurs from an external load and results in tissue damage. I recently received a Research Trainee Award from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR), where I will be co-supervised by Dr. Sparrey and Dr. Brian Kwon, to investigate how age-related spinal degeneration impacts spinal cord injuries in older adults.

What motivated you to pursue healthcare research?

I believe that a life worth living is one that is dedicated to the service of others. I think being an engineer in healthcare research provides me with a unique perspective for understanding spinal cord injuries. Specifically, my motivation to study spinal cord injuries in older adults came from seeing my parents, grandparents, and loved one’s age and become more and more susceptible to having these types of injuries. Unfortunately, with older adult injuries, options for interventions are quite limited, usually because of pre-existing conditions. This makes it important to conduct research investigating the specific injuries prevalent in older adults, such as spinal cord injuries, not just for the older adults in our community, but also as a future investment for ourselves.

What is your current project about?

My current project, where I am co-supervised by Dr. Carolyn Sparrey and Dr. Brian Kwon, focuses on using computational models to examine how age-related degeneration in older adults contributes to spinal cord injuries. Spinal degeneration can change the load that the spinal cord experiences even under the same circumstances. For example, younger adults may experience a simple fall and not be phased at all, but an older adult with very severe spinal degeneration can have a spinal cord injury from just a ground level fall. And this varies with different types of degeneration as well. My goal is to understand how different types, amounts, and locations of degenerative spinal pathologies affect patterns of tissue damage in terms of the amount of damage and its location. Tissues become damaged only when the stress or strain they experience exceeds the limit at which they can handle. My expertise in computational models lends itself perfectly into this project since these simulations can help predict the exact patterns of stress/strain in the spinal cord during an injury.

Why is research in this area important?

Studying older adult spinal cord injuries is important because the prevalence of spinal cord injuries is increasing each year, and the population of older adults is also rapidly increasing. Furthermore, the types of spinal cord injuries seen in older adults are different than those seen in younger individuals, making it important to understand the mechanism by which they occur and identify the parameters that influence them. If different types of degeneration lead to different types of tissue damage and functional loss, it can help guide the development of animal models of this form of injury, which is a first step towards developing treatments, or be used to develop more specific injury prevention guidelines.