Innovator Spotlight: Emily Armstrong

As the Tele-Rehab 2.0 research coordinator, Emily Armstrong is at the helm of closing the gap in access to rehabilitation assessment and treatment.


For many Albertans, a trip to the physiotherapist isn’t as simple as popping across town and into a clinic — it can mean an hours-long drive, missed work and an overnight stay in a hotel room. 

Tele-Rehab 2.0, a research project out of the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, is looking to close this gap in access to rehabilitation assessment and treatment. Through using technologies like a motion capture system, sensors and camera equipment, the research team connects patients  with urban-based expert clinicians to provide them with an accurate assessment. The project is currently reaching patients experiencing shoulder pain, hip and knee replacements, and vertigo and balance issues and also provides wheelchair and special seating assessments.

As the Tele-Rehab 2.0 research coordinator, Emily Armstrong is at the helm of getting patients from Peace River to Grande Cache involved in the project. In this week’s Innovator Spotlight, Emily shares what research taught her about the importance of failure. 

What’s one big problem you want to solve through your work?

For me, the biggest problem that we're working to solve is equity of access. It’s kind of a bonus that we are trying to solve it by also solving a lot of other problems like quantitative measurements in rehab care or technology and process development. But the part that I feel the most passionate about, as someone who grew up in a rural community with a parent who offered rehab services, is that equity piece. People go without care so often in rural areas just because the commute to the city to get an appointment is too much of a burden for them.

What does the word “innovation” mean to you?

Innovation to me means tackling problems in a new way. It doesn't always have to involve coming up with a brand new technology — it can often be as simple as adapting processes to fit a problem better, or using resources in a new way. We are living in a world where information is at our fingertips. It's never been easier to collaborate and figure out new ways to do things. But what's hard is being aware of what's been done, what's being done, and making good use of that information to come up with a new, better way to solve the problems of the world.

What’s been your biggest a-ha moment — in life or work — so far?

It was definitely learning that failure isn't a bad thing. I was always taught in school, in work, in my personal life, that failure was the worst thing that you could ever do. Fail a test? You're never getting into university. Make a mistake at work? Now no one trusts you anymore. It felt so critical to always be perfect. 

But coming into research has taught me that failure is just another way to learn — and in fact, it's almost more valuable in some situations than success. I can remember the physical feeling of "WOW" when I finally came to the conclusion that failing was okay, it was helpful, that I wasn't going to get in trouble. It's changed my whole outlook on life, to be perfectly honest.

Do you have a role model at the U of A? How have they influenced you?

I absolutely do, and it's my boss, Dr. Martin Ferguson-Pell. He's definitely going to blush if he reads this! He's been an incredible mentor to me since I started with the Rehab Robotics Lab in 2019. I've learned how to trust my gut a lot more and learned to embrace my strengths. He inspires me every day with his tenacity and his energy and his passion for his work. He has this remarkable way of really making sure everyone knows that they and their experiences and ideas are valued. I hope that I'm able to emulate that throughout my career.

What’s next for you? Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

We're continuing our work with Tele-Rehab 2.0 — we just got a grant from Alberta Innovates to validate it further as a sustainable business, which will help us get more sites on board so we can bring our services to more communities even outside of Alberta! And we're working on the preliminary stages of a project to help people who may have hearing difficulties understand video calls better. I'm actually really excited about that one as it brings me back to my roots in psychology — so wish us luck on getting some funding to move that forward! 

I'm so blessed to be in this space, doing this work with such incredible people. I hope I can stay here for at least a few more years and then we'll see where the wind blows me!

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Innovator Spotlight is a weekly feature that introduces you to a faculty or staff member whose big ideas are making a big difference.

Do you know someone who’s breaking boundaries at the U of A? (Maybe it’s you!) We’re interested in hearing from people who are creating new solutions to make our world better. We want to feature people working across all disciplines, whether they’re championing bold ways of thinking, driving discovery or translating insights from the lab into the market

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