Aug. 30, 2023

Driven by desire to help others, UCalgary scholar pursues spinal cord injury research

Julien Rimok earns 2023 Vanier Scholarship to support his work
Julien Rimok
Julien Rimok received a prestigious Vanier Scholarship for his research on spinal cord injury. Dawn Smith

Most people are aware that a spinal cord injury can lead to devastating mobility problems. What may be surprising is that patients say problems with their autonomic nervous system, which regulates critical processes like blood pressure and heart rate, are their biggest concerns after a spinal cord injury. 

Dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system following spinal cord injury is due to a gap in communication between the brain and body. This can be devastating to an individual’s quality of life and is also linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. 

Julien Rimok, a doctoral student in the lab of Dr. Aaron Phillips, PhD, is focused on making a difference for people living with spinal cord injuries. 

Working to overcome spinal cord injury

Rimok explains the body has numerous reflex mechanisms (pathways) that communicate what is occurring internally so the body can respond appropriately. Generally, these pathways remain intact after a spinal cord injury, but the messages aren’t delivered properly to the target tissues. In other words, the body can sense a problem, but can’t act on it effectively.

His work focuses on harnessing these intact pathways using tiny devices implanted in the brain that bridge the communication gap between the brain and the body. He was recently chosen as one of 56 trainees to receive a prestigious Vanier Scholarship, which awards academic excellence, research potential and leadership, to support his work. 

“It’s truly an honour to win this award,” says Rimok. “I attribute this success largely to the support I have received from the amazing team in the Phillips lab and the RESTORE Network who have really helped to elevate my project, and I am truly grateful.”

Personal experience guides research direction

Rimok’s interest in brain computer interfaces comes from personal experience. 

While Rimok was pursuing his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at McGill University, one of his good friends was caught in a rip tide in the ocean and suffered a spinal cord injury. He lost his ability to walk.   

Rimok was devastated for his friend and was determined to help him walk again. However, he soon learned about the other health problems after spinal cord injury, those related to the loss of hemodynamic control (which describes how blood flows through the body). It was a turning point in Rimok’s academic career. 

“I thought I could tackle the problem mechanically, but as I continued investigating, I realized understanding biology would be critical,” says Rimok. 

Intersection of neuroscience and engineering

Rimok switched gears, completing his master’s in biomedical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL). The experience brought him to where he is today at the intersection of neuroscience and engineering.   

“It’s a very exciting field that is changing rapidly,” says Rimok. “I think that the translation of brain patterns to something meaningful with technology is the coolest thing, and it can be used in so many ways to help people.” 

Rimok notes the Vanier Scholarship will help him continue in his quest to help others. 

His career goal is to work in research and development of innovative devices that will improve the lives of people living with neurological disorders. It has the potential to change the lives of patients suffering not just from spinal cord injury, but also from other conditions like Parkinson’s disease. 

Phillips says Rimok is driven by his desire to help others, adding he is an intelligent, ambitious student with strong leadership qualities. 

“Julien’s trailblazing work in my lab is leading to lifesaving new implantable neurotechnologies for hemodynamic stabilizing after neurological injury,” says Phillips. “His passion for helping others is sincere, and his impact on moving this project forward is profound.”

Aaron Phillips is an associate professor in the departments of Physiology and Pharmacology, Cardiac Sciences and Clinical Neurosciences and director of the Restore Network at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). He is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the CSM.

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