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Arnold School of Public Health

  • Christopher Gaskins

    Volunteering in Ghana

Alumnus blends occupational therapy, neuroscience and technology to improve health for stroke, military populations

February 16, 2024 | Erin Bluvas,

As the son of English and biology teachers, Christopher Gaskins grew up with a strong foundation in academics. He was taught to be good at writing, and he shared his father’s love of science.

When it came time for college, the Lake City, South Carolina native zeroed in on USC – the alma mater of both his mother (master’s degree) and his older sister. He joined the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. and played the alto saxophone in the marching band.

“I was always a big fan of USC and knew I would get a solid education there,” Gaskins says. “Some of my best memories are performing as a member of the 'Mighty Sound of the Southeast' on the football field.”

Finding his footing

His love of helping people and interest in health and wellness led Gaskins to major in exercise science, and his final practicum requirement helped him zoom in on a career path. It took place at Encompass Health (then known as Health South) – a rehabilitation hospital where Gaskins worked closely with occupational and physical therapists. He served as a rehabilitation aide during his internship, helping patients get out of bed and over to their appointments, and developing an interest in working with patients who had experienced neurological trauma.

As an occupational therapist, Gaskins helps patients regain their everyday activities.

“There was one young lady who had been in a car accident, and her spine had to be stabilized,” Gaskins remembers. “I asked her what her goals were, and she wanted to get back to taking care of her children, getting them to school. It shook me, and I realized that I wanted to continue helping patients achieve their goals by helping them regain their ability to engage in day-to-day activities.”

Gaskins applied to graduate programs in occupational therapy and physical therapy. He was accepted into Howard University – following in the footsteps of his first-generation college graduate parents, who had also attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

“Being at an HBCU was my first time seeing so much Black excellence in one place,” says Gaskins, who recalls being at Howard University Hospital for a class and being taught by four Black doctors who seemed larger than life and whose presence sticks with him to this day. “I not only learned about occupational therapy, but I also gained self-confidence and discipline. The transformation within myself was a big one.”

Serving those who serve

Inspired by his dad’s service in the Vietnam War, Gaskins began looking for opportunities to serve military populations to complete his program’s internship requirement. He completed a clinical internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital while making plans to someday work at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

As Gaskins’ 2010 graduation approached, a Johns Hopkins patient asked him how he could help him achieve his goals. Gaskins mentioned his desire to work with soldiers and veterans, and a flurry of emails and networking took place. Forty-eight hours later, Gaskins had an informational interview with Walter Reed, and soon after he passed his board exams, they offered him a job. In the meantime, Gaskins spent several months at a Dallas hospital working with stroke and other traumatic brain injury patients – a population he was determined to return to in his career.

Gaskins calls his six years at Walter Reed a transformative experience. He began as an acute care occupational therapist working with wounded warriors and their families before transitioning to the lead therapist for inpatient traumatic brain injury patients. After that, he led outpatient neurological occupational therapy – working with veterans who have Parkinson’s disease, muscular sclerosis, brain tumors, stroke and a wide variety of other complex brain injuries and disorders. He also held an appointment as an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.

I wanted to understand how patients process information and use that knowledge to help them improve faster and achieve better outcomes overall.

Christopher Gaskins
Christopher Gaskins

Integrating innovation

Through his leadership roles, Gaskins would discover another area of interest that he would weave into his work – integrating technology into treatment. He spoke to companies who had tools available for rehabilitation, assessed their potential usefulness to Walter Reed patients and then employed them in treatment if he found them promising. This was the beginning of his passion for robotics and health technology.

Though his work at Walter Reed was immensely fulfilling, Gaskins occasionally found himself frustrated that some of his patients did not get better, despite his application of the newest science and technology available. He decided to return to school to learn more about the brain, so he could contribute to the advancement of the field and its ability to return patients to their best lives.

“I had burning research questions from a clinical perspective,” he says. “I wanted to understand how patients process information and use that knowledge to help them improve faster and achieve better outcomes overall.”

Building a better understanding of the brain

In 2017, Gaskins enrolled in the Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science at the University of Maryland-College Park. He found mentors in his advisor, kinesiology associate professor Rodolphe Gentili, and Kimberly Kontson, a biomedical engineer at the Food and Drug Administration’s Human Device Interaction Lab, where Gaskins held an apprenticeship as an ORISE Fellow.

OT with hand
Gaskins co-designed a program in Ghana to reintigrate stroke survivors into their communities.

The trio were the perfect combination for integrating Gaskins’ interests in understanding cognitive motor neuroscience and assessing the performance of rehabilitation devices/technology to improve patients’ ability to participate in everyday life. In his free time, Gaskins served as director of research development for GoTherapy to help stroke survivors reintegrate into their communities in Ghana and provided educational seminars for stroke and traumatic brain injury support groups in his local area.

For his dissertation research, which he defended in the fall, Gaskins looked at the mental workload (i.e., the level of mental effort required to complete an activity as measured by neurological activity in the brain) of patients learning to use upper limb prosthetic devices. Four days after his defense, he joined Cognosante as a Military Health Quantitative Evaluation Subject Matter Expert – returning once again to his passion for serving military populations.

Tying it all together

His role as a consultant on brain injury projects for military health allows Gaskins to use his knowledge and experience to recommend systems-level changes that benefit entire populations. But that’s not all he has going on.

Gaskins continues to work with patients one-on-one through his company, Neurosuite, and prepare future generations of researchers and occupational therapists as an adjunct instructor. Established in 2019, Neurosuite is a mobile concierge service (timely for the pandemic when many outpatient offices became less accessible) through which Gaskins has continued providing occupational therapy to neurological patients, especially stroke survivors.

Inspired by Van Gough’s Yellow House, Gaskins envisions Neurosuite will grow to offer a suite of complementary services (e.g., occupational therapy, data science, engineering to build technology/assistive devices). Thus far, Gaskins has used his doctoral studies and research to guide his practice and vice versa.

My long-term goals are to continue working with emerging health technologies and applying neuroscience methods and knowledge to enhance the usability of these devices.

Christopher Gaskins

He’s also using these lessons to inform his teaching at three different universities. As an adjunct professor at Howard University and Bowie State University– teaching students about occupational therapy, neurorehabilitation and scientific research. Gaskins is committed to facilitating the transition of Black students into the three fields he has sewn together throughout his own career. As part of this effort, he is using funding from the American Occupational Therapy Foundation to examine potential differences in the experiences of OT students who attended predominantly white institutions and HBCUs.

“My long-term goals are to continue working with emerging health technologies and applying neuroscience methods and knowledge to enhance the usability of these devices,” Gaskins says. “Along the way, I hope to help make it possible for a lot more first-generation college students and people of color to enter into the profession.” 

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