16 April. 2021
The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), a set of major research fellowships created by the European Union, are designed to support experienced researchers at all stages of their careers, working across all disciplines and regardless of age and nationality. The MSCA also support cooperation between industry and academia and innovative training to enhance employability and career development. One of these actions are the Individual Fellowships. The proposals submitted for the MSCA Individual Fellowships (IF) for 2020, reached 11573. The funds available to fund the projects of eligible researchers under this action are 328 million.
One of the successful proposals was that of Dr Christos Ioannou, Postdoctoral Researcher at CYENS CoE. Dr Ioannou's proposal aims to investigate and develop state-of-the-art technological solutions against work-related musculoskeletal pain disorders.
1.Christos, would you please tell us a few words about your research interests?
My research interests focus, among others, on the neuro-cognitive aspects of motor control, musculoskeletal pain dysfunctions and neuromuscular disorders primarily in occupations which require demanding physical and mental coordination (e.g., musicians and athletes). Currently, I am focusing on the development of preventive, diagnostic and treatment tools able to serve both, users (patients) during prevention and rehabilitation as well as physicians and professionals during diagnosis and treatment. The non-well understood pathophysiological mechanisms behind occupational pain conditions and the fact that these conditions cost more that 3% of the EU GDP per year, underline its significance to explore and invest further on innovative solutions.
The TONE project capitalizes on what we know about pain in musicians and aims to develop an interactive tool through which musicians can receive visual, muscular, and postural feedback projected on a virtual character while playing their musical instruments. The integration of VR, EMG and motion capture in a biofeedback training tool will result in a powerful preventive and treatment tool against pain symptoms and musculoskeletal (pain) dysfunctions. Moreover, a “game” will be developed which will serve as a cognitive therapy (pain distractor) in patients with chronic pain. The uniqueness of this tool is that, musicians will be able to play the game while executing their musical instruments. Summarizing, the main idea of TONE is to develop and combine physical and cognitive rehabilitation in patients suffering from occupational musculoskeletal pain disorders. The whole project will be conducted at CYENS and in collaborations with the Psychology Department of the University of Cyprus and the Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine in Germany.
2. You are part of the CCAPPS MRG group of CYENS. Can you tell us a bit about your professional choices, and what particular circumstances lead to your work at CYENS and the TONE project under this grant?
As you know, I spent 16 years abroad, living mainly in three different countries. Through this life experience, I developed two mottos which I always try to implement while taking decisions. The first one is: First select the person/s (if possible), and then the location (center, university etc.), and the second one is: Never go anywhere where you will not gain any new knowledge. So, starting from the first motto I had the luck to meet the leader of the CCAPPS MRG group (and pillar leader of the Human Factors and Design at CYENS) Prof. Marios Avraamides. Marios is an extremely supportive person with extraordinary experiences and achievements in academic and industrial research fields. I met Marios during an unrelated online event while I was still in Germany as a postdoctoral researcher. He immediately expressed his interest in learning more about my research area, while being, at the same time, friendly and approachable, characteristics which I truly appreciate. Subsequently, due to my interest in learning more about Marios’ projects and the potential opportunity to work with him, I took, without wasting time, a plane and I met him in person here in Nicosia. We had long discussions, (and a couple of beers) and I was impressed by his ability and flexibility to combine different fields together. So, making the story short, having the luck to meet Marios, I realized that seizing the opportunity to work with him as a researcher would be an exceptional experience (first life-motto). During our meetings, Marios also spoke to me about CYENS, the CCAPPS MRG group and the various collaborations which take place, for instance, with the ITICA group which deals with the implementation of interactive technologies. The challenge for me to combine my knowledge in neurophysiology, motor disorders and performance with a new knowledge on interactive technologies was already attractive enough. Moreover, since CYENS is focusing on academic and industrial research, I was even more
motivated to learn how academia and industry can co-exist effectively. So, by having new knowledge in front of me I felt that my second life-motto had been fulfilled as well.
Finally, Marios encouraged me to apply for a position at CYENS and we decided to formulate an MSCA IF proposal which was applied in 2019. Unfortunately, that proposal was not awarded but due to its high mark it was eligible for submission to the “2nd
opportunity” call at the Cyprus Research & Innovation Foundation (RIF). As a result, the first good news came, with RIF awarding the project with 150000 euro. In the meantime, already based on the experience acquired from the RIF grant, we were also working on an updated version of TONE and a preparation of a new MSCA IF proposal which was submitted in 2020. Finally, the hard work fruited, and the positive results came again. By using this opportunity, I would like once again to thank Marios for his continuous support and encouragement throughout, as well as CYENS which has been hosting our projects for the last year and a half.
3. As a recipient of the prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Individual Fellowships (IF) for 2020 what do you hope to accomplish?
Indeed, MSCA grants are highly prestigious and competitive due to the number of benefits offered to the researchers. For instance, the MSCA provides excellent two-year financial support not only for the implementation of the TONE project but also for mobility allowance, secondments in different countries, traveling to scientific conferences, training programs, hiring assistants who can work on your project, and many more which can boost researchers’ carrier further. It is also an excellent opportunity for those researchers who wish to expand their research interests in different countries and further develop national and international network endeavours.
Apart from all the above benefits which reinforce the researchers’ profile and contribute to the development of national and international network endeavours, the main accomplishment is, of course, the successful completion of the TONE project. The implementation of this project will indicate how neurophysiology, interactive technologies and performing arts can co-exist and significantly contribute to the development of more sustainable, non-pharmacological treatments against musculoskeletal pain in performers. My personal goal is the establishment of a team which can successfully serve the specific field through collaborations with local as well as international research labs, rehabilitation centres and universities. The long-term goal is the establishment of methods and tools able to serve users and professionals in the field.
4. How did you come about this particular topic? What intrigued your interest to solve this problem?
As a neuroscientist, I have always been interested in neuroplasticity related to fine-motor control (acquisition and dysfunctions). Performing music as a sensory stimulus is very complex and requires the integration of sensory and motor information, which should be accurately and continuously monitored by the auditory system. Indicatively, a professional pianist can perfectly coordinate 1800 notes per minute. Developing such skills entails years of training which mainly starts from the age of 5 to 10. Consequently, the systematic training through the years and the exposure of musicians to concerts and competitions implies an extreme physical and mental overload which could easily lead to burnouts, musculoskeletal fatigue, pain, injuries and, in a lesser degree, to more unreversible neurological conditions such as focal dystonia. Similar situations can be descripted in other artistic or non-artistic occupations, such as dancers, or athletes. These challenges, in conjunction with a) the high prevalence of musculoskeletal pain disorders in musicians, b) my previous experience as an ex performer, c) the lack of scientific knowledge and specialists in the field, and d) my research experience in the current topics for the last 10 years, intrigued me the most so as to continue my research endeavours to this direction.
5. Tell us about your experience in obtaining this grant. What were the major hurdles you had to overcome?
The whole experience was wonderful. Winning a grant is undoubtedly a great success with long-term benefits. However, to achieve a grant is not just about the preparation and the submission of a proposal. The process of achieving a grant is rather dynamic and based on years of hard and quality work applied in your daily life. A successful proposal is, of course, based on the proposed idea but, at the same time your background, the quality of your publications, your national and international networks, your abilities to detect and solve potential problems and, in general, your professional profile as a researcher are also assessed.
Mainly, there are no specific hurdles concerning the preparation of grant proposals apart from strictly following the guidelines and learning how to say the same thing with three instead of thirty lines. J Although we know that the odds for achieving such a grant are relatively low, we should never quit, we always have to re-plan, re-adjust and move on to the next step. The real challenge is what I have mentioned above, to achieve a high quality in your professional daily life.