Physiotherapist returns to school to address gender gap in concussion research

KITE Trainee Sonia Vovan is sharing her story ahead the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Sonia Vovan has looked through every piece of available academic literature she can get her hands on, but is unable to find guidance on how to treat her current patient – a middle-aged mother of three, who’s trying to return to work, but is hampered by persistent concussion symptoms. 

This isn’t the first time the KITE Trainee and physiotherapist has faced this kind of predicament. Women, particularly those of working age (25 to 65 years), are often under-represented in concussion research and as a result there isn’t much information on how to handle these cases. 

“I realized that waiting for change wasn't working; I needed to be the catalyst for progress I wanted to see so I decided to return to school to earn my PhD,” said Vovan, who is a second year PhD student at the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University

“This will allow me to not only find answers for my patients, but also generate knowledge for a population that has long been overlooked in research."

Vovan is sharing her story ahead of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (Feb. 11), an annual awareness event organized by the United Nations that aims to promote equal access and participation for women and girls in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Vovan’s research seeks to characterize sex-related differences in behaviour during sensorimotor integration tasks between working-aged men and women following concussions. 

Sensorimotor integration refers to the brain's ability to coordinate and interpret information from different senses to execute precise movements like catching a ball, typing on a keyboard, or preventing a fall. 

In Vovan’s study, participants perform a visuo-motor task involving moving a target on a tablet screen with their finger to evaluate their eye-hand coordination. They also stand on a force plate while visually moving through a simulation of a grocery store in KITE’s StreetLab simulation facility in order to assess the integration of visual information with balance. 

Both tasks require complex integration of sensory, motor, and cognitive functions that are often impacted following concussions.

“Subtle and persistent impairments resulting from concussions may not be easily detected by basic sensory or motor tests, These impairments can impact our daily activities, especially when we're trying to think, look, listen, and move all at the same time,” said Dr. Jennifer Campos who is a Senior Scientist at KITE, the Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Multisensory Integration and Aging, and one of Vovan’s PhD supervisors.

“Understanding the differences in how men and women experience these effects is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective interventions. Sonia's clinical background and research expertise offer unique insights into understanding these issues and their consequences."

Vovan has nearly completed data collection and expects to begin analysis in the spring. 

Despite the challenge of balancing dueling responsibilities Vovan continues to serve her patients part time while pursuing her PhD full time.

“I’ve had so many female patients eager to participate in my study because they knew how lacking this area was and they wanted to be at the forefront of this research and help future patients who are experiencing what they’re going through,” Vovan said.

“The trust these incredible women have placed in me motivates me whenever I face an obstacle on my research journey.”