Antonio Miguel-Cruz brings expertise in nuclear, biomedical and rehabilitation engineering to his new role in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine

Antonio Miguel-Cruz’s vision is to design, develop, validate and implement accessible technologies that support and enhance healthy aging.

25 July 2023

After working as a full-time academic teaching staff member in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine with a part-time secondment to the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, Antonio Miguel-Cruz moved into the role of associate professor on July 1, 2023. 

Miguel-Cruz holds a PhD and MSc in bioengineering from Universidad Tecnologica de La Habana José Antonio Echeverría and a BSc in nuclear engineering from the Higher Institute of Nuclear Science and Technologies, Cuba. In 2004 he completed a postdoctoral fellowship in medical engineering at the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, and in 2016, a postdoctoral fellowship in rehabilitation engineering at the University of Alberta.

Before moving to Canada, Miguel-Cruz was associate professor and chair of the Bioengineering Centre in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the Technological University, Habana, Cuba. He then moved on to become professor and chair of Biomedical Engineering at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at the Universidad del Rosario, Colombia, where he led the design of the BSc and MSc biomedical engineering programs.

Miguel-Cruz worked as an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, where he developed a usability acceptance scale for wayfinding technologies for older adults with dementia and worked on a home-centred sensor and voice-based intelligent personal-assistant platform to manage frailty in older adults. 

Currently, associate professor Miguel-Cruz is director of the Product Evaluation and Application Research (PEAR) lab, where his research focuses on understanding how technological interventions are used to enhance the health and well-being of older adults.

We contacted Miguel-Cruz to learn more about him, his research and what he’s looking forward to in his new role.

What first inspired you to enter the field of rehabilitation medicine?

The motivation behind my focus in this field stems from two primary factors. First, witnessing my father's battle with lung cancer when he was just 40 years old sparked a deep desire within me to contribute to improving health care and aiding individuals like him. Second, due to the economic collapse of our partners in the former Eastern Socialist Bloc, the nuclear program in my home country, Cuba, faced setbacks, preventing me from pursuing a career in nuclear science. Since I was in the fourth year of my program and couldn’t start something completely new, I decided to reorient the knowledge that I had in terms of safety, reliability, and using mathematical models to predict when a system would fail. I applied that to medical devices in hospitals, and in my PhD, I created a model based on a systematic approach to managing medical devices. 

Can you explain your area of research and how it ties in with the PEAR lab?

My research program, entitled Implementing and Adopting Technologies for Healthy Aging, is focused on understanding how technologies used in community and health-care settings can foster healthy aging and, ultimately, the well-being of older adults and their caregivers.

The PEAR lab is an interdisciplinary research network hub with three research themes:

  • acceptance, adoption, and usability of rehabilitation, digital and health-care technologies
  • validation and implementation of rehabilitation, digital and health-care technologies
  • design and development of information and communication technologies-based platforms and use of data analytics

PEAR lab researchers and collaborators come from a wide array of disciplines including but not limited to engineering, computer science, health and rehabilitation sciences and systems design.

Why did you choose this research topic to pursue?

I implemented the model I created in different hospitals in Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia, and one of the hospitals was a well-known rehabilitation hospital in Havana. One day in the hospital, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambra, who was a very famous rehabilitation surgeon, and that got me thinking about how surgery worked with medicine and therapy. I thought that if I ever had to switch gears again, I would like to go with rehabilitation because it integrates so many things.

When I moved to Colombia, I started working in a medical school at the Universidad del Rosario. The school went through a restructuring process and they integrated occupational therapy, physical therapy, medicine, psychology, and the program I created in biomedical engineering into the school. These five programs worked together to solve problems. So, in the end, I ended up working with rehabilitation sciences.

How do you hope your research will be of benefit to people?

I envision a world in which research and technology support and enhance healthy aging. In other words, my vision simply is to have a laboratory in which I can design, develop, validate and implement technologies that support and enhance healthy aging for older adults and these technologies will be accessible to them.

Which classes will you be teaching?

Program evaluation for occupational therapy and health-care systems in general. I will also create a module to teach artificial intelligence to OT students. Artificial intelligence will be pervasive, including in OT. The future OT professional needs to be prepared for what is coming in terms of technology and artificial intelligence in times of the fourth industrial revolution

What is the most rewarding part of your work? And the most challenging?

The most rewarding part of my work is when I do something that brings joy and quality of life to people. My example is when I built a robot to facilitate free play for children with cerebral palsy. My wife did her PhD working with these children and robotic toys, and she found that the robots helped the children be more playful, but also that the type of robot used had some limitations in terms of the activities that the children wanted to do. For example, grasping and launching objects; children want to throw things and they couldn’t do that with that type of robot.

So she came to me and asked if we could design a new robot that would allow for these types of activities. We did focus groups with children, and we asked them to draw and describe the robot that they would want to play with. From this, we had a lot of drawings and descriptions, and we finally built the robot.

The robot was tested with two children, around eight to 10 years old, with cerebral palsy. This moment was the first time in these children’s lives that they could play with something like this. Since they could not play with a standard remote control because they could not move their fingers, we created a robot that moved with push buttons. When we saw the smiles of those children grasping and launching objects for the first time by themselves, this was very rewarding. To put a smile on the face of people, in this case children, because they can do things through technology that they could not do in the past was very rewarding.

The most challenging is working with industry partners. Industry partners always want positive and fast results when we test and validate the technologies they create. This is not always possible. I think there is a lot to do in terms of education and setting expectations when we work with industry partners.   

What drew you to the U of A? 

It all began with my girlfriend, who is now my beloved wife, Dr. Adriana Rios. While I worked at the Universidad del Rosario, she was fully dedicated to pursuing her doctorate here at the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

I sought opportunities to join her in her academic pursuits and, through her guidance, I connected with mentors who facilitated my postdoctoral studies in the faculty.

What are you most excited about in your new role in the faculty?

To have the opportunity to train the new generation of highly qualified personnel (undergraduates, masters, PhDs, postdoctoral fellows and clinicians) who will change the future of rehabilitation, digital and health-care technologies.

What’s the No. 1 piece of advice you give your students?

My suggestion is that if you are going to be involved in technology for older adults, please ask them first. What are their needs? What are their limitations? I have seen many examples of very enthusiastic people developing a kind of technology, then they put the technology into the older adult’s hands and it is of no use because they didn’t ask them for input.

Older adults will stop using the device if they don’t understand it, it is very hard to use, they don’t have the technical support from the companies, or if the technology was not developed while thinking of this target population.

Involve the end users by implementing co-design and co-developing approaches.

Can you tell us something others would be surprised to learn about you?

Some say I am a change catalyst; things may happen without me, but they are better and happen more effectively when I am present.