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Grant supports diversity in health-related research
Researchers work to understand muscle weakness in an aging population

By Elizabeth Boyle 
Oct. 31, 2011

A new Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine  project has the potential to advance treatment practices for a  debilitating condition, but it’s not just the research that’s remarkable about this project―it’s also the story of one of its investigators, OU-HCOM postdoctoral researcher M.J.Matt” Conaway, Ph.D.

Conaway has six academic degrees, a tally of honors and awards, and a list of peer-reviewed publications to his credit. His resume wasn’t always this full, however. In 1974, Conaway, who has mixed quadriplegic spastic athetoid cerebral palsy, was the first disabled student in Georgia to be sent to public school. Now in his forties, he recalls having to “struggle in epic proportions to be considered worthy of being in the academic upper echelon.”

After earning his doctorate in biomedical engineering from the University of Iowa in 2010, Conaway sought to collaborate with respected muscle weakness researcher Brian Clark, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology and director of the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI). Conaway―who is unable to walk, has minimal use of his hands, and communicates primarily through a computer, by typing with a mouth stick―worked with Clark from his home in Iowa City to develop a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research proposal.

In August, the pair received a $194,206 NIH grant to study muscle weakness. The award is meant to promote diversity in health-related research and covers the cost of Conaway’s postdoctoral fellowship.

Their project aims to provide a better understanding of the physiological processes that take place to cause muscle weakness, a condition often seen in the elderly and those immobilized by casts. To do so, Clark, the project’s principal investigator, uses electrodes to stimulate a nerve in the forearm of each subject recruited for the study. He records the forces produced by the stimulated muscles and sends information derived from that to Conaway, who is using it to develop a mathematical model that predicts the dynamics of calcium movement in skeletal muscle.

Creating such models is Conaway’s strength. His doctoral research involved mathematical modeling of changes in skeletal muscle that occur with spinal cord injuries.

“We applied for this grant,” Clark explained, “to sort of take his background in modeling and spinal cord injury and my background looking at muscle weakness, disuse and aging and combine them to do this study.”

“We have so much to teach each other,” Conaway adds, pointing to their differing backgrounds.

Their work could lead to a more detailed understanding of the mechanisms of muscle weakness that—in the long term—help develop and guide interventions for the many Americans with the condition. Approximately 45 percent of the older U.S. population report difficulties performing activities of daily living, which to a large extent are limited by muscle weakness.

Clark and Conaway’s grant is a supplement to another NIH award to Clark on this topic that was funded in July 2010. Through the $426,000 NIH grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Clark and OMNI collaborators James Thomas, P.T., Ph.D., and David Russ, P.T., Ph.D., from the School of Rehabilitation and Communication Sciences are working to understand the neurological aspects of muscle weakness.

This latest grant provides another dimension of knowledge on the topic, Clark said. For its three-year duration, Conaway will work from his home in Iowa City, where he has established accommodations for his physical disabilities. He and Clark use email and the video and phone service Skype to communicate, and Clark plans to visit Iowa multiple times over the course of the project.

Conaway, whose father is an osteopathic physician, said he considers it a great honor and a lifelong dream come true to work for an osteopathic college. With so much achieved thus far, Conaway had this advice for anyone facing a similar struggle as him: Get out there and do something. Things are actually much easier now than they were when he was growing up. 

“Never regret leaving it all behind, as I have done, for the best life that you deserve,” he said. “You just might get it.”


M.J. “Matt” Conaway, Ph.D.             Brian Clark, Ph.D.

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Last updated: 01/28/2016