John Gilliam, a third-year doctoral candidate in the Ph.D. in Exercise Science program, has been awarded a Promotion of Doctoral Studies II Scholarship from the
Foundation for Physical Therapy Research. He will use the $15,000, along with a SPARC grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research, to support his research into improving low back pain treatment and prevention through
understanding movement control.
“The pool of applicants for these scholarships is extremely competitive,” says Sheri Silfies, associate professor of exercise science and director for the Ph.D. program. “I am excited for John and know this is just
the start of an impressive list of future accomplishments.”
Growing up in North Carolina, Gilliam was a sports enthusiast enamored by the movement
and control exhibited by athletes. His interests broadened to include physical therapy
after observing family members benefit from the field, and he began his path toward
the profession by enrolling at Western Carolina University.
After completing a bachelor’s degree in sport management and a Doctor of Physical
Therapy there, Gilliam gained clinical experience in the Asheville area. During his
physical therapy program, he developed a passion for research and continued to read
and apply the latest evidence-based findings as a clinician. Four years later, he
enrolled in the Arnold School’s Ph.D. in Exercise Science program (ranked No.1 in
the nation) to fully immerse himself in research.
“My deep dives into scientific research paired with the reality of working with patients
each day revealed that movement science and the profession of physical therapy would
benefit from additional scientifically rigorous and clinically meaningful studies,”
he says. “My goal as a researcher is to improve and advance our understanding of the
mechanisms that underlie altered movement.”
At USC, Gilliam participates in the Behavioral Biomedical Interface Program – a National
Institutes of Health-funded predoctoral fellowship that offers interdisciplinary training
in epidemiology, exercise science and psychology to better prepare the next generation
of behavioral scientists. He works with Silfies in her Applied Neuromechanics Laboratory
to study the intersection of biomechanics and neuroscience.
Building on the lab’s NIH-funded project to examine the role of cortical sensorimotor
integration in movement impairments, Gilliam developed his own niche within this understudied
area. With his dissertation project, he will investigate the mechanisms of altered
trunk-hip movement control in persistent low back pain while identifying brain changes
that impact movement control. After graduating next year, Gilliam will continue studying
the role of the central nervous system in movement control and the relationship between
movement and pain by pursuing a postdoctoral research fellowship.
“Cross-discipline work is extraordinarily complex, and scientists must have the ability
to apply generalizable constructs and mechanisms while acknowledging ideas that cannot
translate from one discipline to another,” says Jennifer Vendemia, an associate professor of psychology who conducts research with Silfies and serves
as a co-mentor for Gilliam. “John has a unique ability to work at this level because
he is insightful and has a voracious appetite for knowledge combined with the ability
to evaluate the potential of cross-discipline connections critically.”