Mutual appreciation shown at OMNI dinner for research volunteers

Published: January 10, 2024 Author: Staff reports

If there is such a thing as a rock star in research, then Brian Clark, Ph.D., is it. At the recent Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) Healthy Aging Research Appreciation Dinner, many attendees made it clear they are big fans and shared glowing praise of Clark and OMNI, where he is the executive director. 

Research volunteers attend OMNI's recognition dinner

However, these aren’t ordinary fans cheering from the sidelines, they are all in. As OMNI research study volunteers, they participate in various testing designed to help scientists better understand how to extend the health span of older adults. 

Milena Miller, a wide smile across her face, said she couldn’t help gushing about Brian Clark and Leatha Clark, D.P.T., a research assistant professor who interacts with research participants almost daily.

“Brian Clark is number one. He’s been responsible for bringing millions of dollars worth of research (funding) to this university. The whole community should be extremely grateful for not only that but the kind of work that he does,” said Miller. “He is very collaborative…he’s very compassionate, he’s very understanding, he’s completely fair minded, nondiscriminatory in every way. So, all of those things factor into working with someone who’s brilliant in his field anyway.”

Clark, professor of physiology and neuroscience and Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Harold E. Clybourne, D.O., Endowed Research Chair, works alongside researchers and graduate students from across Ohio University (OHIO) in their collective search for ways to improve the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of musculoskeletal and neurological disorders. OMNI has been a powerhouse of production, building collaborations in and out of the University, so much so that the institute recently created two research divisions: one focused on pain, injury and rehabilitation and the other on aging systems and degeneration. 

At the recognition event, Clark recalled how about a decade earlier, he was approached by a small biotechnology startup called Regeneron Pharmaceuticals because it had a drug that was ready for testing on humans. OMNI jumped on board, making OHIO one of five testing locations in the U.S., along with Harvard, Washington University, Tufts University and University of Florida, to determine whether the drug would help improve muscle function with aging.

OMNI award recipient Milena Miller

“We were really worried we would not be able to recruit enough people to do that study because Athens is three percent the size of Boston,” said Clark. Then Dru Evarts walked into his office. She’d heard about the study. As with all studies, volunteers must meet eligibility criteria. On this particular study, Evarts did not meet the criteria and was unable to participate.

“I didn’t think much about it until two days later when my phone starts blowing up and my email starts blowing up. Dru had started contacting everyone she knew to tell them about the study,” said Clark. “The rest was history from there. It put us on the map as a place that could do major research in aging.”

Later, during a conference call with the other sites, Regeneron executives noted how well OHIO was doing with recruitment and asked Clark if he was running advertisements on local subways and buses.

“I had to laugh,” he said. “’No, we have one person who called every friend she knew.’ That’s when I realized her caring heart and her commitment to paying it forward, and so, since that time, for more than a decade we have given out a community ambassador award that we named after Dru, because we certainly could not have done that key pivotal study so long ago…without her.”

Each year OMNI asks its study volunteers as well as people from the Athens community to submit nominations for the Dru Riley Evarts Community Ambassador Award, which recognizes an outstanding community or senior citizen advocate whose work or volunteer activity has had a positive effect on the lives of those in the community.  At this year’s dinner, the first in four years due to COVID-19, three individuals received the award. 

OMNI dinner award recipients Christine Knisely and Tim Law, DO

Miller was one of the recipients. Miller, former director of development at Appalachian Community Visiting Nurses & Hospice, is a consultant with Rural Action and was instrumental in starting a medical supplies and equipment recycling program. She is also active in Athens Rethink Plastics, a group that lobbied for the single-use plastics ban that began in Athens at the start of 2024. In his remarks at the appreciation dinner, Clark noted that Miller was raised in Ohio after her family immigrated to the U.S. 

“Her family clearly instilled a work ethic and a compassion for others that she has carried on throughout her entire life,” Clark said.

Christine Knisely also received an ambassador award. After retiring from her role at the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Office of Research and Grants, Knisely served on the Athens City Council as well as the local and state boards of the League of Women Voters. Clark pointed out that she has been active in numerous projects over the years and is a role model for healthy aging.

“Chris did not let grass grow during her retirement,” Clark said.

OMNI Executive Director and award recipient Berry Dilley

Berry Dilley, who has been volunteering for OMNI research studies for a decade and is also very involved in many community projects, received the third ambassador award.  Dilley said initially it was her curiosity that led to her involvement as a research volunteer. She wanted to gauge her health against others to see how she was doing.  

“At the same time, I don’t like being compared to other people because they’ll say, ‘on the average,’ and I’d just as soon not be average, because a lot of the average people in my age group are no longer alive,” said Dilley.  

Clark told dinner attendees, “I put Berry into one of those quote unquote ‘super ager groups.’ She perpetually amazes me with her agility, her enthusiasm, and I asked her what was important to her, and she said, ‘play, curiosity, participation, engagement, sharing, learning, laughter, delight, friendship, belonging and individuality.’ Anybody that knows Berry, knows that sums it up perfectly.”

In addition to recognizing the service of OMNI’s study participants, OMNI gave out its Distinguished Service Award to Judith Rioch and Timothy Law, D.O. Rioch previously worked for OHIO’s Office of Research and Sponsored Program. Law is OMNI’s medical director. 

The appreciation dinner also gives volunteers the opportunity to hear the results of the studies in which they’ve been involved, so they can learn how their work made a difference. 

“They always describe in detail what the purpose of the study is and why it’s important that you participate and what will be done with this information and for me, who’s kind of a real research nut anyway, or for any of us who have done higher education or grants writing, there is a lot of research involved, so I really honor that. I love it. I’m happy to be a part of it,” said Miller. 

The deep respect and affection the OMNI scientists have for their volunteers was apparent at the dinner, during which investigators shared tips on healthy living gleaned from their own research findings. The volunteers made it clear that the feeling is mutual, which is why, several said, study after study, they keep coming back. 

The benefits of the relationship are notable. OMNI scientists have compiled more than 1,600 published research articles and 85,000 citations in studies related to aging, low back pain, orthopedic injuries and more. In 2022, OMNI received $3.2 million in grant funding, the most in its history. 

“In Appalachian Ohio with the kind of poverty that we have and the kind of health care risks that we have, that kind of research becomes even more important,” said Knisely. “The people who are parts of the study are also eventually the benefactors of the products of that research, and so it’s very important. It’s a symbiotic kind of relationship.”

“I’ve been learning a lot about myself, and about the work and how the body works through the research projects,” said Dilley. “I really like working with them and I like the idea of meeting other people who are doing the research as well.”