Barton, Kristen

2017 Winner: Leaders Of Tomorrow Sponsored By Alberta Economic Development And Trade

Injury Leads to Passionate Medical Career Path

Any competitive athlete knows that injuries are always a looming threat, especially at college and university-level play. Kristen Barton, MD/PhD student in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, knows all too well the toll sports take on the body.

As a former player for the University of Calgary Dinos women’s soccer team, Barton suffered five knee injuries and subsequent surgeries, which led her to draw upon her own experience for her career path in medicine.

“Having such significant knee injuries early in life,” Barton says, “led me to what I’m going to be doing hopefully in the future. I’d love to be an orthopaedic surgeon. It really exposed me to new injuries and prevention as well as pre-hab and rehabilitation after surgery.”

Expanding the research

Barton’s research has naturally focused on joint injury prevention and rehabilitation. Together with the lab group, Barton is working with animal models to better understand in vivo joint kinematics and how gait is affected with knee injury.

One method of measuring gait is through using an instrumental spatial linkage (ISL), which is a form of technology that attaches directly to the animal’s bones to precisely measure movement patterns. Although Barton still uses ISL, she is further refining the surgical approach of the technology with the goal of creating the most accurate pre- and post-injury models. The goal of this work is to better understand how different injuries lead to post-traumatic osteoarthritis. By studying the biomechanics and biology of the joint, Barton is able to better understand how the tissues are impacted by injury, with the aim of better defining what approaches need to be taken to mitigate or slow the progression of osteoarthritis.

Outside of the lab, Barton is taking her research passion and applying it to the community as the research coordinator for the Joint Effort Program, which is a six-week neuromuscular training program designed for people with knee, hip and rheumatoid arthritis.

“The goal is to mediate pain with their arthritis,” explains Barton. “A lot of people do it pre-hab if they’re going to get a joint replacement. A number of individuals with arthritis also participate in the program to try and minimize their symptoms, and improve their joint function and pain.”

Continuing through all levels of joint injury management, Barton has also partnered with Vivametrica to better understand behaviour and lifestyle changes of patients after surgery. Using wearable technology like Fitbits, Barton is using analytics to measure risk profiles for the patients.

For the patients, Barton explains it’s beneficial to “have that real time method to see how they’re doing on their risk profile and see how that impacts their behaviour change in health. We just received an Alberta Innovates grant (for this work) which is super exciting.”

Through all her research and initiatives, it is the patients that continue to motivate Barton.

“I get the most reward from seeing the patients that I work with at the Joint Effort Program, or at my company, who do the exercise program and who have previous knee and hip injuries and seeing them overcome the pain and the functional barriers that they’ve had from the disease process. That’s probably the biggest thing that I appreciate and that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.”

Following in Visionary Footsteps 

After her undergrad, Barton was recruited back to Calgary by the late Dr. Cy Frank. As a visionary in Alberta healthcare, Dr. Frank innovated knee surgery and osteoarthritis treatment while making vast improvements to healthcare in the province.

Barton explains that Dr. Frank was a huge motivator. “He really pushed me to continue research and I’m so glad I did because I was also in the medical program at the same time,” she says. “It’s been a great opportunity and I’d say Dr. Frank was the mentor who guided me down the research path.”

In 2015, Barton transferred to supervisors Dr. Nigel Shrive and Dr. David Hart. Barton explains the support she has had, the mentors and the opportunity to collaborate has been a huge driver of her success.

“Alberta has a very strong bone and joint research program across both University of Alberta and University of Calgary. To see the facilitation and collaboration, especially as a young trainee, really helped spark what I’m doing now.”

Now with 20 months left in medical school, Barton is planning on pursuing a career in orthopaedic surgery, which would involve a five-year residency program followed by fellowships.

“I’d love to specialize in sports or knee and hip or arthroplasty,” says Barton, “but I still have a few years to decide. With my background and my research, I’d love to have a clinical appointment and an academic appointment in a research institute. I’d love to combine both my medical career as a clinician as well as my research.”