Student Research Spotlight: Jennifer Mao (DO '21)
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Student Research Spotlight 
Jennifer Mao (DO '21)

February 19, 2020

Collage of x-ray photos of the spine with surgical screwsJennifer Mao (DO '21) researches how machine navigation can effectively place cervical pedicle screws during spinal surgeries.

After graduating with a bachelor of science in biochemistry and a minor in computer science from Temple University, Jennifer Z. Mao (DO ’21) began work as a quality assurance engineer. After working for a year, Ms. Mao enrolled in Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine's (PCOM) dual-degree (MBA/DO) track and received her master of business administration in 2018. Currently she is on a research year with the department of neurosurgery at the University at Buffalo.

Headshot photograph of Jennifer Z. Mao (DO '21)What are you studying?

Complex deformity surgeries are large surgical procedures that can encompass half of your back. These long procedures can result in up to a liter of blood loss. If the spine surgery fails, there are often consequences such as back pain, neurological deficit and further surgery. With the aging population, astute spine management is necessary. I seek to understand spinal biomechanics and how spinal surgery influences complications, patient outcomes and biomechanical homeostasis of the spinal column.

Specifically, I am investigating the adult idiopathic scoliosis population to identify factors for the optimal time for surgical intervention as well as surveying the experts to identify rate of progression of the curve. I have and will be presenting my work on Characterization, Management, and Outcomes of Adult Idiopathic Scoliosis at the International Spinal Deformity Symposium in New York, New York and the Joint Section on Disorders of the Spine and Peripheral Nerves in Las Vegas, Nevada.

From my osteopathic education, I believe that when there is an imbalance or intervention in one region, it affects the rest of the spinal column. Our bodies will compensate to maintain horizontal gaze.

This year I will also be presenting my work on the influence of approach on segmental lordosis in spinopelvic correction with lumbar interbody fusion at the Joint Section on Disorders of the Spine and Peripheral Nerves in Las Vegas and at the 2020 American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) Scientific Meeting in Boston. This study looks at different surgical approaches and how it affects the amount of curve in the low back region. This is important as greater curve or “lordosis” has been correlated with improved outcomes.

Additionally, the University at Buffalo is a leading center in spinal robotics. My team and I are investigating how robotics and navigation can improve safety, accuracy and efficacy to spine surgery. We seek to improve surgeon workflow to promote the care of patients.

What experience do you have conducting research?

I worked as a computational research assistant in the Center for Chronic Disorder of Aging and the Kulathinal Lab in Evolutionary Genetics and Bioinformatics. During my undergraduate studies, I built a pipeline to calculate statistical differences between large population data sets (utilizing the 1,000 Genomes Project* data set) to investigate genetic diversity across humans and chimps. During medical school I worked with IBM’s Joint Academic Initiative to train a Watson instance for the improvement of curricula.

What prompted you to pursue research?

My love for research was serendipitous. Research is the study of discovering and explaining new knowledge. From a medical perspective, we are taught how to analyze scientific literature and draw conclusions based on presented evidence. From a business perspective, we are taught about the importance and financial implications of clinical trials. Formulating research proposals and grants is similar to writing a business proposal. I pursued research because I have a fundamental passion for project management in the healthcare sector driven by the desire to improve the care, treatment and outcomes of patients.

What are your responsibilities on the research project?

As a research fellow, I collaborate with physicians and scientists to optimize research designs. I submit the proposal for the institutional review board (IRB) approval, collect data, analyze or interpret statistical results and work with the residents for their clinical knowledge in manuscript preparation. I have a collaborative team that allows me to work on various types of projects. I also work with video technicians to record surgical cases to develop technical videos. Our studies have been and will be presented at various neurosurgical and spine conferences, where we get feedback from the community of spine specialists.

Furthermore, I’ve been given the opportunity to utilize my management skill set to assist in clinical trials. I assist the research team in developing budgets, protocols and patient follow-up appointments.

What is the broader impact of your research?

High quality evidence-based research will improve our knowledge of disease and treatment. The impact of this research is to improve neurosurgical techniques, outcomes and care of those who undergo spinal intervention. As technology improves, integration with spine surgery will push the limits of healthcare.

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