Ames Scholars Walk the Walk
By Chad Osborne
Scholarships and state-of-the-art facilities give students a leg up on research
Maci Keaton ’21 has an eye for toe walkers.
One day, while leaving the Biomechanics Research Lab in Peters Hall, Keaton’s keen observation led her to a mildly uncomfortable conversation opening.
The allied health sciences major from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, spotted a fellow student walking along the sidewalk. “I was watching him walk — a toe walker has a very distinct gait pattern — and I ran up to him, and said ‘Hi, I know this seems really awkward, but you could be a perfect participant for my study.’”
Keaton is one of the two students in the 2020-2021 academic year who received the Douglas J. Ames Jr. Memorial Scholarship, which, through a generous yearly gift from a former faculty member, supports health and human performance majors through year-long research.
As an Ames Scholar, Keaton studied individuals who tend to walk on their toes or balls of their feet, or toe walkers.
In the lab, early in the spring semester, Keaton ran one of her student volunteers through a series of tests, outfitting him with electromyography sensors (EMGs), to conduct a gait analysis. “I’ll be looking at the EMG values, as well as the pelvic tilt, while he’s walking back and forth,” she explained. “Then, I’ll have him run through a stretch and then have him walk again.”
As Keaton carries out her work, Cameron Sarver ’21 was on the opposite end of the spacious lab, preparing a student volunteer for a series of tests that would allow her to collect data on and examine the effectiveness of ankle braces.
After four EMGs are placed, Sarver instructed the volunteer subject to stand on an 18-inch-high platform and dangle her right foot off the edge. After a few seconds, she had her drop to the floor. The sensors recorded the impact. The volunteer then repeated the steps, this time donning an ankle brace to “check the difference in muscle pre-activation,” Sarver explained. “We check to see if it changes or varies with the ankle brace on.”
Sarver was a Radford University cheerleader and has been active in the sport for most of her life. Because of its rough and tumble nature, “I’ve had many injuries and had to wear an ankle brace many, many times,” said the allied health sciences major from Bluefield, Virginia.
It’s one thing to inspect braces’ effects on ankles, but Sarver wanted to go further and look at how the devices could impact other parts of the leg.
“I’m focusing on four muscles in the upper leg to see how the ankle brace affects those areas,” Sarver explained. “I’m really excited to see what the data tells us.”
That’s where the state-of-the-art Biomechanics Research Lab comes into play.
“The computers in this lab can do about anything,” Sarver said with a bright smile. “They record muscle activation. When a person walks, our equipment can record force and torque and twisting action.
“All of those cameras over there,” she said, pointing to a set of small digital cameras stationed nearby, “record the participant, while they go through the exercises. There is so much we can do with this equipment.”
The Biomechanics Research Lab sports an impressive list of equipment for students to use in their research. It includes a SMART-DX 6000 Optoelectronic system with eight infrared cameras, a FREEEMG 1000 surface EMG system with eight wireless probes, an INFINI-T tensorized floor composed by six 60x40 cm force plates, a VIXTA 50 video system with two cameras and a Walk Triaxial Accelerometer.
“I can come into this lab and have access to all this equipment to use for my research, and my professors have given me the freedom to choose an area of research that interests me,” Keaton said. “One thing that is so cool about Radford is you are not going to find many other undergraduate programs that have this level of research caliber.”
The generosity of former Radford University faculty member Steve Ames, Ph.D., is paving the way for Keaton’s, Sarver’s and other
Ames retired from Radford University in 2006 after 35 years of teaching in what was then known as the Department of Exercise, Sport and Health Education and is now the Department of Health and Human Performance, known colloquially as HHP.
“Dr. Ames is a pillar of our program and is greatly responsible for building it into what it is today,” said David Sallee, Ph.D., M.S. ’97, a professor in the HHP program and one of Ames’ former graduate students at Radford.
When Ames retired, he recalled, “I just thought I would give something back because Radford gave me a great opportunity to work with so many students all those years.”
To do so, he and his sister, Cathy Ames, established a scholarship to honor their late brother, Douglas Ames Jr., “who passed away early in life about 20 years ago,” Steve Ames said. “We thought we would name the scholarship for him to honor his memory and give something back to the department and to the University.”
Steve and Cathy contribute each spring, Steve said, “so we can sponsor one or two students and their research.”
Ames’ desire and contributions led Sallee and fellow HHP professor Laura Newsome, Ph.D., to develop research opportunities in the lab with the support of the Ames Scholarship.
Once the lab was built with the necessary modern equipment, select students were picked from a competitive pool to work on research with Sallee, Newsome and other HHP faculty. Students work on their research through an independent study course for an entire academic year and are paid for their work through the Ames Scholarship Fund. Typically, students have opportunities to present their research at national conferences. COVID-19 limited many of those conferences, but Keaton and Sarver still had opportunities to present their findings on campus to faculty and fellow students.
When she was recruited to play volleyball at Radford University, Keaton never dreamed of working with faculty as an undergraduate, conducting research that students at many other institutions typically do not do until graduate school.
On a February afternoon a couple of months before graduation, Keaton was “looking at ways we can change the gait pattern in toe walkers by stretching the gastrocnemius” muscle, she explained. “I’m looking at how effective the gastroc stretch is and how it correlates with the EMG values.”
This research is just the beginning for Keaton. She aspires to a career as a doctor of osteopathic medicine, working with patients who live with musculoskeletal issues, a choice inspired by her grandfather, who lived with Parkinson’s disease, and her best friend, Haley, who had spinal muscular atrophy.
“The Ames Scholarship has been huge for me and what I want to do in life, and it’s at the top of my resume,” Keaton said. “I came to Radford and got the opportunity to work with great professors and produce high-caliber research. This has been a life changer for me.”