Trainee Spotlight – Luke Johnson

PhD Candidate

Biomechanics of Osteoarthritis Lab

Vancouver – Centre for Hip Health and Mobility

Luke Johnson is a PhD candidate with the UBC Department of Orthopaedics at the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility. Luke’s love of engineering and biomechanics led him to pursue graduate research in patients who have residual hip deformity from Perthes’ disease.

Can you share a little bit about your educational background and journey, and how you got to where you are today?

I come from an engineering background. I’ve always been somewhat technically minded, tinkering around with old tech and computer parts when I was a teenager and old cars more recently. I studied Engineering at the University of Cambridge for my undergraduate degree. The program allowed me to experience most engineering fields before choosing what to specialize in. Mechanics always came pretty naturally to me, and I was drawn to biomechanical specialties during my time there. I liked the inter-disciplinary nature of biomechanics and that there were plenty of dynamic areas of ongoing research.

My undergraduate research project was to create a robotic model of canine knee motion, using an automotive assembly line robot to manipulate cadaver specimens in a “walking” motion. This was definitely a steep learning curve! I was also interested in medical imaging, so I wanted to combine these streams going forward into grad school. That’s how I came into contact with my current supervisors: Dr. David Wilson at the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility (CHHM) and Dr. Kishore Mulpuri at the HIPpy Lab. They gave me the perfect opportunity to explore this sort of multidisciplinary research.

What is the focus of your PhD research?

My research delves into the causes of poor long-term outcomes in patients who have residual hip deformity from Perthes’ disease. More specifically, I use advanced MR imaging and modelling methods to try and better understand how changes in the shape of the hip influence the joint’s clearance, range of motion, and cartilage damage in adolescents and young adults.

This involves recruiting adolescent and young adults participants who have previously had Perthes’ disease for MRI scanning. I make use of the upright open MRI at VGH, allowing us to directly measure hip clearance in high flexion postures, and the 3T research MRI at BC Children’s, where we measure early indicators of cartilage degradation.

I also take detailed anatomical scans of participants’ hip joints which allows me to utilize modelling techniques to link our research outcomes more closely with actionable improvements in clinical practice. For example, I am using a statistical shape model of the femur, created in collaboration with the Anderson lab at the University of Utah, to evaluate common 2D X-ray measurements and determine which are best at representing the complex 3D shape of Perthes’ hips.

What impact would you like to see your work have on patients, communities and society at large?

Patients who had Perthes’ disease as children often have difficulty with the transition from paediatric to adult care. Perthes’ disease is a rare and poorly-understood disorder, so it is often difficult for patients to access the care they need as a “too young” adult, even those whose quality of life is reduced by chronic hip pain. I hope that, in addition to helping clinicians make better decisions on how to manage long-term Perthes’, I would be able to help patients understand their own hips better and be in a position to advocate for themselves when seeking care.

What excites you most about your work? What are you most proud of?

Research into Perthes’ has been very limited in the past, but here at CHHM and the HIPpy Lab, we have the tools, expertise and patient connections to really push the boundaries of what can be done. It feels like every week I discover something completely new! I’m also motivated by the enthusiasm of our research participants, who are very keen to understand more about their hips and help patients in future.  

What is one piece of advice that you would give to current trainees?

Keep time for yourself – being a PhD student means you don’t have strict working hours, and it’s easy to let work creep into more and more of your life. I try and keep myself to an approximate 9-5 and avoid work on weekends, and I think that’s played a big part in keeping myself (relatively) sane. Of course, it’s also important that you communicate these expectations with your supervisor and make sure you’re on the same page with regards to workload and commitments.

When you’re not working, where can we find you?

At the moment I’m doing a lot of crochet. I’m currently making myself a jumper in time for the winter, but I’ve done all sorts in the past (including plush potted plants that never need watering!) I also have an old British sports car which is very fun to work on and go on road trips with- see the photo at the Teton Pass in Wyoming!

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