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New Solutions to Age-Old Problems

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From biomedical engineer to physical therapist, Prof. Leslie Russek is working to find new solutions to age-old medical problems.

Professor Leslie Russek has never been able to make up her mind about what she wants to be. Lucky for her, she doesn’t have to.

Russek, a licensed physical therapist and orthopedic specialist, biomechanical engineering Ph.D. and researcher, Aikido instructor and self-proclaimed dog lover, is able to make good use of all of her talents, knowledge and interests at Clarkson as a professor in the Department of Physical Therapy.

“Academically, Clarkson perfectly matched my interests in biomedical engineering and physical therapy,” she says. “The idea of helping to develop a rehabilitation engineering program that combined the best of physical therapy and engineering was particularly appealing and I spent my first few years at Clarkson helping to get that off the ground.”

While at Clarkson, Russek has shifted her focus towards one of the most human experiences: chronic pain. She is currently involved in several research projects on chronic pain conditions like hypermobility syndrome (HMS), headaches and fibromyalgia.  For example, one project is looking at how much physical therapists understand about the condition of HMS, while another is determining whether HMS is associated with increased pain and frequency of injury.

“In addition to my research, I do a lot of public education. Most people don’t realize how effective physical therapy can be in managing chronic headaches by fixing the cause rather than just treating the symptoms,” she explains.

Russek also spends a great deal of time in the classroom with her Doctor of Physical Therapy graduate students and pre-physical therapy undergraduate students. The physical therapy curriculum at Clarkson is rooted in an approach called problem-based learning (PBL), which allows students to think not just of the science behind a patient situation, but also the ethical, legal and psychosocial issues related to it.

“The PBL format is a way to help students learn how to think rather than just cramming their heads full of facts that may become outdated within a few years,” says Russek. “In PBL, students work in small groups to really understand realistic patient cases. Physical therapists learn best by figuring out what is wrong with their patients and how to treat them. That’s what our students do.”

Outside the classroom, Russek runs a fibromyalgia support group and is the faculty advisor for the Clarkson Aikido Club, teaching classes three times a week. Aikido, which means “the way of harmonizing energy,” also fits in perfectly with Russek’s lifestyle and career.

“Aikido is all about redirecting the negative energy of an attack into a positive outcome – about resolving conflict and striving for outcomes that are constructive rather than destructive,” she explains. “It’s about guiding people without forcing them and about listening through touch to what they are experiencing. Physical therapy, especially working with people experiencing chronic pain, is much the same.”

Despite her accomplishments, Russek still has one hope for the future – practicing canine physical therapy. “I am devoted to my two dogs, Luna and Bandit. They ground me and remind me to step back from my busy life and just enjoy ‘being’ every now and then,” she says. “I dream of rehabilitating dogs with musculoskeletal injuries when I retire from academia.”

Leslie Russek, Professor of Physical Therapy

Leslie Russek
Associate Professor of Physical Therapy