Periodically, ORS features interviews with our members. This week, we learn more about Kyle Allen, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Associate Chair of Undergraduate Programs, J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Florida.
Specific Area of Interest
The centering question for my laboratory is ‘how do degenerative musculoskeletal diseases, like osteoarthritis, cause pain and disability?’ While seemingly simple, this question is quite complex, as the relationship between joint-level pathology and disease symptoms changes during the long, chronic stages of joint degeneration. Our approach is to investigate connections between biomechanical, inflammatory, and pathological variables, seeking to understand how different tissues and physiologic systems change as joint degeneration progresses.
Who have been your mentors?
I worked with Kyriacos A. Athanasiou as a graduate student, and with Lori Setton as a post-doctoral fellow. I still primarily lean on them for mentorship, but I have also developed many great relationships within the orthopedic community. Today, I almost have more mentors than I can count.
What are you currently working on?
Over the last 5-8 years, my research group has focused on the development of research tools for small animal models of knee osteoarthritis, including magnetic capture of intra-articular biomarkers, an open source method for rodent gait analysis, and a software program for grading knee histology. We are currently focused on deploying these techniques to the field. We are also now expanding our focus, using these techniques to become more integrative in our approach to osteoarthritis research.
What has been the biggest challenge/issue for you lately in your research?
I am really excited about the work going on in my lab right now. We’ve made some big pivots, and I’m really excited to see where these new investigations take us and our field. However, whenever you pivot or take on risks, you never get where you want to go as quickly as you want to get there. So, right now, my biggest challenge is finding the bandwidth for these new projects, and finding patience is always a challenge. Also, managing the anxiety that comes with risk is also a challenge, but that is something I’m now more comfortable with (getting through tenure helps).
What project(s) are you looking forward to in the near future?
We recently started a new project to understand the role of exercise in osteoarthritis using a small animal model. I’m very excited to look at how exercise modulates cartilage and bone health in the context of meniscus injury, while also examining variables related to the peripheral nervous system and intra-articular inflammation. I think this will be a great opportunity to examine how biomechanics modulates, not only cartilage and bone, but also physiologic systems tied to pain and disability.
What advice would you give a researcher just starting out in the field?
I’m full of advice… I wish I knew which parts of it are good, and which are bad. Probably the best piece of advice I can give, that I think is universal, is to find a group of people that you can talk with openly and transparently about your challenges and your goals. You’ll get a lot of advice, and then you can choose the path that works for you. There are a lot of paths to success, but finding the right path for yourself (rather than following someone else’s) can often be the biggest challenge.
When not in the lab, what do you like to do for fun?
I have twin daughters (6) and a son (2), so most of my fun is playing with my kids. One of my daughters is really into volleyball and the other is a pretty good chess player, so I bounce back and forth between that. And when I need down time, I watch Bubble Guppies with my son.
What was the last book you read for fun? Would you recommend it?
I read a chapter from one of the Harry Potter novels for my daughters every night before they go to sleep, and I have to admit, that’s pretty fun. So, yes, I’d recommend that.
What is the most unusual/unexpected item sitting on your desk right now?
I have a bobblehead of Dr. Sam Hulbert on my window sill. Dr. Hulbert was influential in the development of ceramic knee and hip implants, and he was also the president of my alma mater – Rose-Hulman. I took two courses from him during my senior year, and my interactions with him influenced me to apply for a PhD in biomedical engineering (while also interviewing in industry). That led to a graduate student interview at Rice, which convinced me that biomedical engineering was something I really wanted to do in life. That was a very big pivot for me – I had spent the last 3 summers working on tractors at John Deere and hadn’t taken any biology electives due to my 2nd major in Economics. So, it was a big risk and it didn’t really align with my undergraduate training, but I’m really happy I did it. Dr. Hulbert just passed away in 2016, but I keep that bobblehead from his retirement celebration at Rose-Hulman as a reminder of the benefits of calculated risks.