Senior Mary Bucklin got her start in research the summer before her sophomore year, studying motion analysis and advancing ankle brace technology for patients with posterior tibial tension disorder at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. This experience provided Bucklin with early exposure to different methods, devices, and approaches to clinical research.
“After that, I really enjoyed working with patients and being able to help them through developing better technologies and rehabilitation methods to help future patients,” Bucklin said.
Coincidentally, while Bucklin was working at Upstate Medical University, her own grandmother was diagnosed with posterior tibial tension disorder and was recommended to the study Bucklin was working on. Unfortunately, she was assigned to the control group and was given the ankle brace that was predicted to be less effective than the experimental brace.
“I knew that, but couldn’t say anything, so I was really upset at first,” Bucklin said.
Luckily, her grandmother benefited from the study and was able to get the better brace after the trial was complete.
“She got better and didn’t need to get surgery, and it was really inspiring to have such a personal connection to the research,” Bucklin said. “It was great to see her go through that and I learned a lot through that project in particular about being able to interact with someone going through the process, which was really rewarding.”
Part of what drove Bucklin to pursue rehabilitation research was her involvement in Varsity Field Hockey at UR and her interest in long distance running, as well as other outdoor activities.
“Sports have always been a big part of my life,” she said. “Being exposed to sports injuries definitely played a role in my enthusiasm for rehabilitation research.” For Bucklin, being involved in research is a balance between being open to new experiences and pursuing things she is passionate about.
Since her sophomore year at the University, Bucklin has been working in Dr. Mark Buckley’s biomedical engineering lab, studying viscoelasticity in soft biological tissues—specifically, the Achilles tendon. The lab aims to develop novel therapeutic strategies and technology to treat soft tissue damage associated with aging and disease.
Bucklin has been able to explore the mechanical properties of the Achilles tendon and surrounding muscles as well as the progression of damage through a combination of in vivo and in vitro experimentation. The lab performed mechanical tests on samples of Achilles tendon, as well as conducted studies with patients using ultrasound imaging techniques.
“It’s a dual perspective on the same problem, which is really neat,” Bucklin said.
Bucklin is currently studying insertional Achilles tendon apathy, which is the degeneration of the fibers of the Achilles tendon directly at its insertion into the heel bone. She is able to draw conclusions about the causes of impingement and pain through learning about the mechanical properties of the tendon.
“There are definitely gaps in the literature with respect to muscle coupling and mechanical responses of muscles, as well as muscle cells and how they relate to Achilles tendinopathy,” Bucklin said. “The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.”
Ultrasound elastography techniques are used to to assess the mechanical properties of tissue by applying stress and detecting tissue displacement. Bucklin uses these techniques to quantify strain in the Achilles tendon and to observe the dynamic properties of the tendon during functional activity.
Patients do a series of three squats, and researchers gather data of the displacement of the tendon over time. The patients are then given exercise protocols to complete over the course of three months, after which they are retested.
Bucklin employed this procedure in a study analyzing muscle thickness in the upper and lower leg and how that relates to Achilles tendon function. She found that there was weakness in multiple muscles of the lower leg exclusively on the side that had Achilles tendinopathy.
This type of information guides the development of cutting-edge rehabilitation and strengthening protocols that can be immediately employed in the clinic. While these protocols have traditionally been used to treat the area in which the pain is directly experienced, a better understanding of the relationship between the lower leg muscles and the Achilles tendon may promote the standard protocol to target other areas.
Surgeons that collaborate with researchers in Buckley’s lab to develop and test treatments have reported significantly less need for Achilles tendon surgery, probably as a result of patients participating in the new protocols.
“Ultimately, all biomedical research is geared towards a clinical application,” Bucklin said. “I’m really interested in being on the edge of that clinical application.”
Bucklin extends her academic involvement beyond research, serving as the mentoring chair of the biomedical engineering (BME) society, actively tutoring and serving as a teaching assistant for the introductory BME 101 class, and serving as a BME peer advisor.
Although she admits there’s no doubt that school can be stressful and challenging, she has never been more excited than now to continue her career as a student.
“Doing research has motivated me in the classroom because I know I’m not just learning to get an A on the test,” Bucklin said, “I’m learning to actually understand the material and apply it and make an impact on the world.”
Doing research has shaped Bucklin’s future plans, which include completing dual graduate degrees in BME and physical therapy at Northwestern University.
“Two of the mentors I worked with had both Ph.D.s and degrees in physical therapy, which was really influential to my career choice and next step after college,” she said.
The education and experience that Bucklin has had at the University has taught her how to solve problems and be resilient in a wide variety of situations, and she plans to use these tools to innovate physical therapy.
“Doing research, I’ve realized that I really like it, even though it’s hard and frustrating at times,” she said. “It’s definitely not the easiest career path, but there are pros and cons to every career path, and I think that research is really beneficial in the long term.”
“It’s exciting, new, and innovative, and it’s not something that everyone gets the chance to do.”