My Winter Stretch Experience

Hey everyone, my name is Melnard De Leon and I am working at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute for my stretch experience, which is the number one rehabilitation research centre in the world!  Because I am an aspiring physical therapist, my understanding of the field of rehabilitation science up until this point has been centered around helping others to recover from injuries and deal with disabilities. However, working at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute has allowed me to gain perspective about the other important aspect of rehabilitation: preventing injuries before they happen. Because of this, the majority of research here is actually conducted by engineers and experts in biomechanics. Personally, I have no engineering experience and little biomechanics experience, so my time at the institute has been quite humbling so far.

The research that occurs at this institute is mainly focused on solving real world, practical problems to prevent injuries and accidents from happening in the first place. For instance, accumulation of snow,and ice on pavements during winter increases the risks of slip and falls for people with or without a disability. So for one of my projects, I was tasked to work with a team to assess the performance of alternative pavement types in winter conditions. Essentially, these alternative pavements are hypothesized to be safer than regular pavements, but there has been little experimental evidence to prove it so far. This project is part of a larger scale project to promote safety and accessibility in the form of universal design codes to be eventually used in Canada after sufficient experimental results have been obtained.

This is the machine we use to make snow!

Our supervisor told us that she needed preliminary results so that she can arrange a meeting with the City of Toronto and our collaborators from the University at Buffalo to organize a field test for these pavements.  However, that was all the instruction we received; it was up to us to work together in order to determine what experimental parameters we should use and what data to collect to compare these different pavement types, which I think this accurately reflects the leadership style in this organization. That is, there is a large emphasis on education and training so that each of the researchers are able to solve problems or test hypotheses themselves, without the need of a supervisor. Instead, the supervisor’s role in projects like these is to point us in the right direction and suggest new ideas to try when we get stuck on a problem.

This is the observation room of ClimateLab, which is a lab that can replicate a range of environmental conditions from winter (-20°C) to summer (+35°C) as well as up to 95% relative humidity.

Our team consisted of an individual with a PhD in chemistry, a co-op student in mechanical engineering, and me who has an unrelated background in physiology. As you may have noticed, this is an interdisciplinary team. And as we have learned at PLLC, interdisciplinary teams are prone to conflict and disagreements – which was indeed true in our case. Specifically, we disagreed with experimental details such as how much snow we should use, what temperature to start at, and the duration of snow melting. In fact, we ended up spending an entire day debating over these details! But in hindsight, this debate was necessary in order to refine our experiment to ensure that our data was as valid and accurate as possible.

This is me measuring snow packing!

We also ran into several problems along the way such as dealing with the limitations of our snow machine, establishing a reliable method to quantify snow melting, and keeping the properties of snow consistent between experiments (it turns out that the properties of snow change with pressure, humidity and even if you leave it at the same temperature!). Also, it turns out that one of the disadvantages of working in a one-of-a-kind facility is that there’s very little to no experiments that are similar enough to turn to for reference, so we had to come up with methods to overcome these problems on our own.

Here we’re analyzing the snow on the three different pavements.

And this is where an interdisciplinary team really begins to shine: creativity. With different fields and experiences to draw from we managed to come up with creative solutions to these problems by making the most of the resources available to us. Each of us came up with different ideas and although not all of the ideas would work, it definitely sparked someone else to come up with an idea that would work. For instance, one of us suggested to quantify the melting rate of snow by measuring it’s depth over time and another one of us suggested measuring it’s mass over time (It was a little more complicated than this, I just don’t want to bore you with too much science!) Eventually, we realized that we could just use both methods. Even though it would be more time consuming, it would allow us to compare the two forms of data to let us see which one best explains our qualitative data (pictures and videos in this case).

Needless to say, this is but one of multiple projects that has definitely challenged my critical thinking ability during my time at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. Being part of the WinterLab team and performing such innovative research outside the scope of my regular degree has forced me to think in ways I’ve never did before, as well as be exposed to many new ideas about the broader field of rehabilitation science as a whole.

I guess you could say that I’ve been having a pretty “cool” summer so far!


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