Bend over to pick something up. Reach for something on a high shelf. Crouch down to talk to a child. In an ordinary day, we bend and twist and stretch our backs in hundreds of ways without even realizing it. And sometimes, we injure it.
Prof. Stephen Brown, who recently joined the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, is trying to figure out how our backs get injured and what we might do to prevent or heal the problem. “My main research is about understanding spinal function, especially in the lower back,” he explains.
Born and raised in Windsor, Ont., Brown completed his undergraduate and master’s studies at the University of Windsor, majoring in kinesiology with a specialization in biomechanics. His PhD from the University of Waterloo was also in kinesiology, and before coming to U of G, he held a post-doctoral position at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine.
“That was a great experience,” Brown says. “I got to work with MDs and surgeons and PhDs, all bringing their varied backgrounds to researching and understanding medical issues.”
The medical issue that has captured Brown’s attention ─ back injuries ─ has been studied from a number of different perspectives. Brown is looking specifically at the muscles of the back and abdomen because these normally support the spine. “In fact, these muscles are specialized to both move and stabilize the spine,” he explains. “I look at how the muscles can be pre-disposed to injury and how they adapt to any spinal injury. The muscle adaptations can be good or they can be bad, making things worse.”
Brown conducts research with human subjects and with animals. To study people, he uses electromyography, which studies the electrical signals produced by a person’s muscles during movement. Other studies involve animals, and Brown hopes to collaborate with faculty at the Ontario Veterinary College to help him in his animal research.
Another area of interest for Brown is developing a better understanding of the complex relationship between the electrical signals in muscles recorded by electromyography and the actual physical force exerted by those muscles. “I’m trying to improve our techniques so that we can provide better models of this relationship, since we can’t directly measure the force the muscles produce in humans.”
After his two years in San Diego, Brown says he was eager to return to Canada. “My wife, Diane Gregory, is from Halifax, and her PhD dissertation was on intervertebral discs. She collaborated with me on the research I was doing in San Diego. We knew we were looking for a community with several universities so that we could both work; I was impressed by U of G’s really strong research reputation.”
Brown starts teaching in January, with a course at the University of Guelph-Humber campus on human anatomy.
When he’s not studying aching backs, Brown likes to watch sports ─ pretty much any sport, he says ─ although he himself runs for exercise. He did give surfing a try while in San Diego and enjoyed it but says there won’t be too many opportunities to surf in Guelph. Brown also loves to read fiction and recently enjoyed The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. “I’m not the most prolific reader, but I really like to go through lists of recommended books,” he says.