Jessica Hoist Wolf

Engineer for health

Doctoral student Jessica Holst-Wolf brings engineering into kinesiology

When Jessica Holst-Wolf was growing up, her favorite thing to do was watch Bill Nye the Science Guy on PBS Kids every afternoon with her dad. So it’s not surprising that her academic path led to the sciences and technology—biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering, and finally to biomechanics in the School of Kinesiology, where she is now in the final year of her Ph.D.

Holst-Wolf feels she has landed in the best of academic realms: applied science.

“There’s a direct route between science and helping people,” she says. “I really enjoy being part of the application of science to benefit health and well-being.”

Although she’s always been a science nerd, she says, she liked the humanities, too. She entered the U in the College of Liberal Arts, but at freshman orientation she realized that maybe she’d made a mistake—“All my classmates were excited about their classes and I just wanted to take calculus!”

Holst-Wolf transferred to the College of Science and Engineering in her second semester and majored in biomedical engineering, then continued on for a master’s in mechanical engineering. She wasn’t familiar with kinesiology but luckily, she says, her master’s program required her to take a few courses completely outside the major.

“I didn’t know what kinesiology was, but I thought the seminar on motor control and learning sounded interesting,” she remembers.

Taught by professor Jűrgen Konczak, a biomechanist and director of the Human Sensorimotor Control Laboratory, the class engaged Holst-Wolf in ways she’d never imagined.

“It turned out to be the best class I’ve ever taken,” she says. “I remember calling my mom on the phone and telling her all the interesting things I was learning. I was hooked!”

Discovering teaching

But Holst-Wolf was focused on completing her master’s degree. While working on her thesis, she took advantage of an opportunity to volunteer in a teaching position in Tanzania. For five months she taught children of all ages and rates of progress in a one-room school. She lived with a family in the community and collaborated with other volunteers to develop a curriculum that would be more effective for a one-room school model.

“It was the most satisfying experience I’ve had,” she says.

When Holst-Wolf returned, she kept in touch with her host family and two of her students, whose education she and her own family would go on to help sponsor each year. She also took a job at a community college teaching engineering classes.

“I loved teaching and wanted to continue, but I realized how much I missed learning new things,” she says. “Plus, I was still fascinated by research.”

Blending engineering and kinesiology

She couldn’t get that seminar in the School of Kinesiology out of her mind. She decided to meet with Konczak to explore the kinesiology Ph.D. program. He remembered her from the seminar and encouraged her to apply. She enrolled in 2011 and became his advisee.

Many kinesiology students have a background in areas of human movement or sport, such as exercise physiology or sport psychology. Holst stands out.

“Having a professional background in biomedical and mechanical engineering coupled with kinesiology will make her a very marketable candidate for academia and industry,” says Konczak.

Last spring, Holst-Wolf was awarded both a Women’s Philanthropic Leadership Circle Award for graduate students and a U of M Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, allowing her to concentrate on her research study, data analysis, and thesis development this year. She is investigating the potential neural basis for changes in proprioception—our ability to perceive our limb motion and limb position in space—from sensory training for the purpose of improving proprioception.

“This is a significant health issue that commonly affects a wide array of patient populations. I’m hopeful that my research will allow us to propose at least a partial mechanism for the neural changes that underlie changes in proprioceptive acuity.”

Holst-Wolf credits Konczak’s seminar class and her experience working with him and other graduate students in his lab with setting her on a course she’d never foreseen.

“My career path changed dramatically,” she says. “He made the seminar so interesting. He has high expectations of his students, but he gives you all the tools you need to be successful. And in the lab we are like a family. You’re working for yourself, but you’re also working for the lab.”

Even when she’s immersed in her writing or research, Holst-Wolf stays physically active herself by running and participating in triathlons. She’s also a pretty formidable broomball and hockey player. Her hockey-playing husband is a goalie for community leagues and they’ve played against each other in pick-up games. She even scored against him once.

“I’ve never let him forget that,” she laughs.

Learn more about the School of Kinesiology and the doctoral program in biomechanics and neuromotor control.

Story by Marta Fahrenz | February 2016