George Mason University

News at Mason

Mason recognizes outstanding researchers

November 22, 2016   /   by Michele McDonald

From preventing injuries to developing new ways for amputees to use prosthetic limbs to finding a better way to help former prisoners successfully transition into society, George Mason University researchers are tackling tough problems. Three of Mason’s standout researchers, Nelson Cortes, Wilsaan Joiner, and Danielle Rudes, have earned the university’s 2015-16 Emerging Researcher/Scholar/Creator awards.

Each year, George Mason honors innovative researchers who have earned their doctorates within the past 10 years and show exceptional promise in their fields.

“Danielle, Nelson and Wilsaan are among Mason’s best and brightest young faculty. They are doing research of great consequence, and all three are deeply engaged in sharing the new knowledge they create with our undergraduate and graduate student communities,” said Deborah Crawford, Mason’s vice president for research. “It is contributions like the ones they are making that will assure Mason continues to be recognized as a research university for the world.” 

Nelson Cortes. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Injury biomechanics and prevention

As an undergraduate two decades ago, Nelson Cortes was inspired by one of his professors to specialize in injury biomechanics and prevention.

“He introduced me to biomechanics and how it can improve the human condition, and he modeled for me the ideal integration of teaching and research,” said Cortes, an associate professor in the programs of Kinesiology and of Exercise, Fitness, and Health Promotion in the College of Education and Human Development, as well as in the Sports Medicine Assessment, Research and Testing (SMART) Laboratory. “His passion for his subject and students—along with his unique interactive teaching method, which was grounded in real-world, problem-based learning—set the standard for what I wanted in my own career.”

Cortes worked on his professor’s research projects, specifically biomechanics research related to sports performance in track and field. He helped develop novel biomechanical analysis software based on video imaging.

At Mason since 2010, Cortes looks for the risk factors that can lead to debilitating injury. For example, falls are a leading cause of death for older adults due to injury. Analyzing risk factors that can lead to falls, such as balance and cognition, helps researchers and health providers develop interventions to prevent injury and improve quality of life.

He’s also collaborating with Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine to develop a rapidly deployable noninvasive diagnostic technique for osteoarthritis and traumatic brain injury.

Cortes earned his PhD in human movement sciences and his MS in education, exercise science, both from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He earned his BS in exercise science and physical education from the Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias, Lisboa, Portugal. Cortes won the College of Education and Human Development Scholarly Award of the Year in 2014 and the OSCAR Mentor of the Year in 2013.

Wilsaan Joiner

It’s in the way you move

You don’t notice how your eyes scan the Johnson Center to search for a friend, or even the small adjustments you make when one hand holds a tray of food and the other removes items to place them on a table. But bioengineering assistant professor Wilsaan Joiner does.

His promising work contributes to our understanding of human motor learning and motor control, supporting the development of new rehabilitation and diagnostic approaches. For example, he studies how sensory feedback and internal monitoring signals are combined to predict the outcomes of our actions—from stabilizing our vision when searching for a friend to how our hand positions change when we’re doing tasks.

He is collaborating with Mason’s School of Dance to study how dancers develop complex, fluid movements of the body, and how they cognitively develop the skills to maintain precise spatial relationships during their execution. He’s also working with bioengineering professor Siddhartha Sikdar on a noninvasive method of using ultrasound to detect muscle activation so prosthetic hands can seem natural to use for amputees.

Joiner credits his career path to his father, who recommended bioengineering as a major, and Cecil Thomas, a retired professor at St. Louis University, for mentoring him as an undergraduate and arranging a summer internship at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Through that internship, Joiner learned how engineering techniques could be used to measure and represent how the body moves, to help researchers understand how disease changes the body and how quantifying those changes could then be used to develop treatments and diagnostics. While he was at Johns Hopkins, other researchers in the lab discovered how small errors in reaching movements predicted some clinical symptoms of Huntington’s disease.

“Thus, a simple motor task could give some insight on disease onset, which I found extremely interesting,” Joiner said. “That was the ‘aha’ moment for me as a student.”

Mentoring students is an essential part of research, Joiner said.

“None of this” he said, gesturing around his lab in the Long and Kimmy Nguyen Engineering Building, “is possible without students.”

He earned his PhD in bioengineering from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and joined Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering in 2012. 

Danielle Rudes. Photo by Ron Aira.

Fixing a flawed prison system

A native of upstate New York, Danielle S. Rudes “literally grew up surrounded by prisons” and wanted to help those inside. As a child, she’d wave to the jail as her mother drove by on the way to errands.

“I felt bad for the prisoners. I’d wonder ‘What are they doing in there and how can they get out?’ As an adult, I want to change flawed systems.”

Now Rudes is doing just that. She’s an associate professor in the Criminology, Law and Society Department in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and deputy director of Mason’s Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence.

A sociologist by training, Rudes goes into the field to find answers firsthand about how policy and organizational change play out. She joined Mason in 2008 primarily because the university focuses on merging knowledge with real policy relevance. With grants from the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Rudes and her team are helping the departments of corrections in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland translate research into practice to change lives and decrease recidivism rates by helping former inmates return to society.

For decades, probation meetings had a standard dialogue—the officer asked a few closed-ended questions of the probationer to determine if the probationer had any recent drug use, police contact or other difficulties. These meetings focused mostly on risk factors and paid little attention to a probationer's needs. The process did little to stop former inmates from returning to prison.

Starting about a decade ago, some community corrections agencies began training their officers to ask open-ended questions focusing on goals and working collaboratively with probationers and parolees to determine what needs to happen to achieve them. For example, if a probationer wants to work in a technical field, the officer will ask what type of training is needed and follow up with resume-building and interviewing skills.

Although these changes are important for improving correctional outcomes, change is hard, Rudes said. She studies this organizational change process from the ground, hoping to help organizations work smarter and sustain each change.

Rudes earned her PhD and MA in sociology from the University of California, Irvine and her MA in communications from the University of New Orleans. She is also a prior winner of Mason’s Teaching Excellence (2012) and Mentoring Excellence (2015) Awards.