Creighton PT Student Earns NASA Fellowship for Otherworldly Muscle Research
Creighton PT Student Earns NASA Fellowship for Otherworldly Muscle Research

Joe LesnakThe faraway depths of space have a way of inspiring those of us confined to Earth. Take for example Joe Lesnak, a Creighton student who – some 1,500 miles away from Cape Canaveral – is carrying out research he hopes will benefit astronauts visiting space.

Behind the glitz and glamour of rocket launches and visits to the International Space Station, it turns out, lies something just as important to NASA’s overall mission: research on the ground. Lesnak, BS’15, is a second-year physical therapy student at Creighton and recent recipient of a 2016-2017 NASA Nebraska Space Grant Fellowship. This is, in fact, the second time Lesnak has received the fellowship; he also received it in the 2014-2015 school year.

Though his research under associate professor Terry Grindstaff, PhD, PT, ATC, focuses on muscle strength on Earth, it should apply both to NASA astronauts and terrestrial dwellers recovering from knee injuries. The research blends Grindstaff’s experience studying knee injuries with Lesnak’s own past research and experiences.

After approaching Grindstaff, it was clear the two would work well together. “Joe comes out of a strong exercise science program here at Creighton and is really prepared in that regard – both as a physical therapy student and a researcher,” said Grindstaff. “He approached me because I’ve spent a lot of time researching knee injuries, and with his past experience, it’s worked out very well.”

According to Lesnak, current methods of assessing lower extremity muscle strength – specifically after knee injury and surgery – require expensive machines and lots of time. Even so, he said, “little research has been done to examine how alternative tests compare to one another and how different muscle contractions relate to performance and strength.”

Lesnak believes that studying alternative methods of strength testing after knee surgery could allow physical therapists to better assess muscle atrophy and to develop more effective interventions as a result. Grindstaff agrees. “Joe is looking at methods that could translate to smaller spaces and budgets,” he said. “A physical therapist or athletic trainer could use these methods in a clinic and the results should be nearly as good as the gold standard.”

As for the NASA tie-in? The muscle loss that occurs in the thigh after knee surgery is similar to the muscle atrophy astronauts experience after as little as two weeks in space. Lesnak noted that NASA research shows long-term stays in space result in up to a 40 percent decrease in overall muscle function. His theory is that by better understanding how muscles react after knee surgery – and how physical therapists should respond – we can also better understand how to monitor and reverse muscle degeneration before, during, and after an astronaut’s visit to space.

Lesnak is one of just a handful of students from across Nebraska to receive a NASA Nebraska fellowship. To be eligible for a fellowship, a student must have demonstrated interest in working for NASA or the aerospace industry and engage in an aerospace-related project. For its part, NASA hopes that students who receive these and similar fellowships will stay engaged and eventually become members of the aerospace workforce.

Though Omaha, Neb., may be one of the last places that comes to mind when you think of NASA, Lesnak’s research – as well as the research of other NASA Nebraska Space Grant Fellowship recipients – plays an important role in the way we understand life in and after space.

“Ensuring the health and well-being of the astronauts is vital for successful long-term space exploration,” said Lesnak. “I’m excited to be involved in research that will help get us closer to that goal.”