URI alumna to meet President Barack Obama after winning science research award

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Maria Urso trying to help soldiers recover from muscle injuries

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 26, 2012 — Whether they’re enduring grueling basic training drills or avoiding deadly explosions in combat, soldiers are constantly at risk of injury.

That’s why the research being performed by University of Rhode Island alumna Maria Urso is so valuable to the nation’s defense efforts. Her work studying musculoskeletal injuries at the cellular level for the Department of Defense has been so important, she was recently named a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

The prestigious national award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government upon science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

The 36-year-old native of Manhassett, N.Y., will join 95 other recipients at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington on Tuesday to receive their awards, followed by a tour of the White House where they will meet President Barack Obama.

“Discoveries in science and technology not only strengthen our economy, they inspire us as a people.” Obama said in a White House release. “The impressive accomplishments of today’s awardees so early in their careers promise even greater advances in the years ahead.”

The awards, established by President Bill Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Honorees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.

“I’m beyond shocked,” Urso said. “This is like a vote of confidence. It’s an award for a track record of doing important work the past five years, but it’s also that vote of confidence that you’re going to continue to do important things.”

Urso completed her undergraduate degree at URI in 1997, receiving a bachelor of science in kinesiology and she continued her studies in Kingston to earn her masters in kinesiology in 2000. She earned her doctorate from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2006.

Urso then joined the military for a four-year commission and has continued her work as a civilian research physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine’s Military Performance Division at Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., since 2010.

Her work at Natick has focused on finding the most effective means to help muscles recover after injuries.

“The thrust of my research is first to understand muscle injuries,” she said. “If you get a hamstring tear like we see often in basic training, or a blast injury in a combat theater from an improvised explosive device, those are very different injuries.

“I try to understand the injury at the cellular level and then find drugs that are already being used for other things to help repair the muscle faster and aid in functional recovery,” she said.

It’s a big change from the physical therapy career Urso envisioned throughout much of her undergraduate career at URI. It wasn’t until an internship during her senior year that she realized she did not want to go into physical therapy.

With only one semester left and no idea what she wanted to do, Urso began working in a lab with Tom Manfredi, a professor of kinesiology. It was there that she found her future career.

“Once I found what I loved at URI, there was no such thing as giving less than 150 percent,” she said. “I’ve never done something just to get it done, so it makes sense that once I got that push from the people who mentored me at URI, I took that push and it was like, ‘Let’s go, game on.’”

Having received that push from the University, Urso makes it a point to come back to the school three times a year to provide a push of her own for kinesiology students. She said she gives them a pep talk and lets them know about the variety of jobs that are out there and the myriad ways to gain exposure to them through programs and scholarships many students don’t even know exist.

And she makes sure to let the Rhody students know they are getting an education that is on par with any number of prestigious universities.

“If you look at the other people who won this award, they’re from MIT or Harvard. This puts us on the same playing field as them and it says a lot for URI,” she said. “It kind of tells them it doesn’t have to be students from Harvard or MIT who are doing great things. Students coming out of URI are doing the same things.”

Photo by David Kamm/U.S. Army.