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Ana Maria Acosta, PhD

Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) of the Physical Therapy and Engineering dual degree program

Ana Maria Acosta, PhD

Every student has their own story to tell and if you take the time to listen, it is so much easier to provide valuable advice and guidance in their career and personal pursuits.”

Ana Maria Acosta, PhD is the director of graduate studies (DGS) of the physical therapy and engineering (DPT/PhD) dual degree program, offered jointly by the Feinberg School of Medicine and the McCormick School of Engineering. Acosta is also the associate chair for post professional education and an associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences. Her research primarily focuses on why individuals lose the ability to move their arms and hands freely following a brain lesion and how this loss impacts the musculoskeletal system.

What is the most rewarding part of being a DGS?
What I enjoy the most in my role is the interaction with our amazing students. It is gratifying to see them grow into scientists and to think that I contributed, even if only a little bit, to that growth. 

What advice would you give to someone just beginning as a DGS?
My advice would be to take a step back and evaluate the state of the program from the graduate student perspective to begin to fill in the gaps or address any issues that are present and may have been overlooked. It is also important to approach the role with an equity lens from the very beginning. While we have been successful in attracting historically underrepresented student populations to our programs, I think it is important that we also work on evaluating their experience at Northwestern and identifying existing barriers to their success so we can begin to address and inform any necessary changes to our programs. 

What have you learned from being a DGS?
I have learned to be a better listener, which has been vital in my role while advising and advocating for students. Every student has their own story to tell and if you take the time to listen, it is so much easier to provide valuable advice and guidance in their career and personal pursuits.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
Following a brain lesion, for example, as a result of a stroke, individuals can lose the ability to move their arms and hands to freely interact with the environment. My research deals with understanding why this is at the neuromuscular level, looking not only at the effect of the brain lesion on the transmission of the movement commands to the muscles but also on how the loss of these commands impacts the musculoskeletal system. We are also looking at how we can restore some of the lost function through the development of robotic rehabilitation devices based on our knowledge of the mechanisms underlying the movement impairments following stroke.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
As a child, I always wanted to become a medical doctor as a way to help people. However, when I graduated from high school, I decided instead to pursue an undergraduate degree in engineering and then a graduate degree in biomedical engineering as another avenue to help people. The difference being I would now design technological solutions to address health issues instead of treating the health issues directly. In grad school I further focused my interest in helping people through rehabilitation research, helping individuals with movement disabilities regain function. Looking back at my trajectory, I can’t think of a better way to help others.

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
The most significant potential impact of my research is helping individuals with movement disabilities resulting from a stroke regain lost function, thus directly impacting their quality of life. While that is always the driving motivation from my work, I think we are now closer than ever in making this a reality with our efforts on the development of a robotic rehabilitation device that can be used for training arm movement after stroke in the clinic and home.

What inspires you?
I am so inspired by the social consciousness of the younger generations that are growing alongside my teenage kids. I am constantly in awe when I listen to them speak about issues of race, ethnicity, and gender equity, using terms and language that I am only now learning. Their level of understanding of the issues and ability to come up with solutions makes me optimistic that the next generation will become the leaders of a more equitable and civil society.= 

What do you like to do for fun?
I like to spend time with my family, whether it’s walking the dog, watching a new series on Netflix, eating out, going to the movies or traveling. My family and I did a multi-generational trip to Europe last summer, spanning in age from 11 to 82 years old. We all had a blast, and I can’t wait for our next trip. When I am not spending time with my family, I like to do yoga and read.