To Szu-Ping Lee, the best research questions emerge from community stakeholders who are personally affected by a problem. His job is to work with them to find solutions.
An associate professor of physical therapy, Lee applies this principle in his research on improving mobility in older adults and those with limb loss. For his work in this area, he was recently recognized as the 2020 recipient of UNLV’s Community-Based Research Award.
The award, offered through UNLV’s office of community engagement, is presented annually to faculty who demonstrate commitment to community engagement through their work in research and scholarship.
Lee said comments from clinicians and patients have been instrumental in the design and implementation of his projects over the years, and the current project, titled “Mobility and Patient Perceived Outcomes in Older Adults with Limb Loss,” especially benefitted from community involvement.
“Since the goal of this project is to improve functioning of older adults and those with limb loss, the community partners – patients and clinicians – provided important input to help us develop meaningful research questions and appropriate study designs,” Lee said. “The clinical partners in the Las Vegas community were instrumental in the execution of the studies, including participant recruitment and providing space for the testing. This research project is merely a spark that triggered the engagement with our partners.”
Lee’s community-based research project involved interdisciplinary collaboration among UNLV faculty and students from kinesiology, civil engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and environmental and occupational health.
The outcomes of Lee’s project include the creation of an improved clinical tool to measure physical functioning of individuals with impaired physical mobility. He established a database for clinicians to use while assessing a patient’s fall risk.
His project also led to a better understanding by clinicians of what factors influence the outcomes and effectiveness of rehabilitation after an amputation. One of his recent studies showed that the experience of financial hardship negatively affects functioning in individuals with limb loss. A paper on this study has been accepted by the journal Prosthetics and Orthotics International and will be published soon.
In addition, Lee’s project resulted in several scholarly benefits for UNLV faculty and students. His work led to four external grants, seven peer-reviewed publications, and 11 national presentations. The project also led to the development of two intellectual property concepts and patents related to mobility assessment in clinical practice. These technologies are beneficial to clinicians who track and interpret a patient’s changing physical function.
To date, more than 40 of Lee’s students have benefited from participation in his community-based research project, gaining valuable experience that complements their education and supports their future careers as physical therapists. Some students who participated early in the project have already graduated and are now working in Nevada as practicing clinicians, putting their knowledge to work for the benefit of their patients.
Lee believes his work has helped solidify UNLV’s reputation throughout Nevada as a resource for patients with limb loss and clinicians working to help them.
While the benefits for clinicians and students are impressive, perhaps most notable are the tangible benefits offered to Southern Nevada residents with limb loss.
Lee’s research led him to serve as an organizer for the Las Vegas Amputee Support Group, which has 246 members and is currently the only community-based amputee patient support organization in Nevada. Through the support group, members gain access to monthly meetings, workshops, and recreational adaptive activities. In 2019, the Amputee Coalition Certified Peer Visitor Training Project, supported by Lee’s work, produced six peer visitors to help Nevadans experiencing limb loss.
Eldon “Butch” Plotner, a Vietnam veteran who sustained limb loss during his service, participated in Lee’s community-based research project, both as a patient participant and a volunteer, and as a member of the amputee support group.
“Szu-Ping Lee has my highest regards as an invaluable resource and advocate for myself and all amputees,” Plotner said in a letter of support for Lee. “He is caring and passionate about his work and the students. Now, with so many amputees surviving injuries, especially wounded warriors, his research is even more important…. He has helped and touched so many lives. I cannot even begin to say how much he is appreciated and well deserving of the highest praise.”
“Dr. Lee believes that the best applied scientists seek out problems from the community and then work with the members of the community to solve those problems,” said Dufek. “This is clearly evident in his approach to the design and implementation of his community-based research project, and in his efforts to share and apply the knowledge gained with all stakeholders.”
The UNLV office of community engagement established four universitywide awards in 2016 to recognize campus individuals for their exceptional community engagement in the areas of service-learning, community-based research, faculty/staff community outreach, and student service.