Picture of  Arun Jayaraman

Arun Jayaraman: Using Technology to Push Innovation and Recovery in Rehabilitation Care and Outcomes Measurement

Written by:

Susan Chandler


Arun Jayaraman, PT, PhD, Director Max Nader Center for Rehabilitation Technologies & Outcomes Research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, can think of several times in his life when someone offered him a job for which he wasn’t a perfect fit.

The first time, he was an international student studying for a master’s degree in physical therapy at Georgia State University. He was emailing people on campus looking for a part-time job to supplement his tiny stipend when by mistake he CC’d the head of the Georgia State Police. “He was super sweet,” Jayaraman remembers. “He said ‘I can’t offer you a graduate assistantship, but I have an opening for a secretary.’” Soon, Jayaraman was printing paychecks for police officers and inventorying guns, bicycles and ammunition. “Captain Blackburn didn’t have to give some random kid a job with the State Police,” he says. “If I had screwed up somebody’s paycheck, it would have looked bad for him.”

Another time, he was hired for a job with Atlanta’s Project Healthy Grandparents, which provided support and weekend respite care for children who were living with their grandparents because their parents had substance use issues, were incarcerated or deceased. As a “driver liaison” Jayaraman went with a van driver into some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods to pick up the children and then helped entertain them during the weekend. “I don’t believe in heavenly miracles but I believe in human miracles,” Jayaraman says. “If they hadn’t given me that job, I couldn’t have made ends meet. Miss Kim and Miss Jarice didn’t have to hire me. I wasn’t a cultural fit and I wasn’t a social worker.”

I don’t believe in heavenly miracles but I believe in human miracles.

Arun Jayaraman, PT, PhD


Jayaraman, 43, went on to get a PhD in Rehabilitation Sciences from the University of Florida and, in 2008, became a post-doctoral fellow at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. He studied with Director of Research Zev Rymer, MD, PhD, and George Hornby, PhD, focusing on neurophysiology and robotics in rehabilitation, a rapidly evolving field of interest to the U.S. Veterans Administration. When his post doc ended, Jayaraman became the Director of the Max Nader Center for Rehabilitation Technologies and Outcomes Research at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. His lab conducts all its outcome research using wearable wireless sensors and applies machine-learning techniques to data to improve traditional outcome measurement.

Sometimes his work sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. “I can use data from your Fitbit to see if you’re getting an infection like COVID. Your heart rate will be different, your step count will go down, and your sleep pattern will change. When you combine all this, you get an algorithm,” he says. “We can use variable sensors to diagnose if someone is recovering after a stroke. We can analyze someone’s gait and predict whether they are at high risk for a fall.” In the outcome measurement field, Jayaraman is working to reduce the amount of time it takes to run conventional tests. “We automate the measures that clinicians are using. Instead of having someone do a 10-minute walk test, they can test the patient for 30 seconds and get an accurate result.”

I can use data from your Fitbit to see if you’re getting an infection like COVID.

Arun Jayaraman, PT, PhD


In March 2021, Jayaraman added another title to his resume: Executive Director of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s Technology and Innovation Hub. His latest job involves overseeing cutting-edge projects with new drugs and gene therapies and new techniques like spinal stimulation. “We’re scouting for new recovery strategies that have faster or better recoveries than standard care,” he says. In one of the hub’s projects, researchers are using sensors to monitor how newborns in the ICU are kicking their legs to predict potential motor delays.

These days Jayaraman is the one who is giving people a chance. Although the fields of nursing and physical therapy are heavily female, the ranks of research scientists are not. African Americans are also underrepresented in the field. “That’s how I give back. I go above and beyond to give people a shot. They don’t have to have the perfect CV, but they have to be open to doing things they may not be comfortable with,” he says. “If you can help one person, it has a ripple effect. I want to believe in the betterment of the world.”

More from the CROR Outcomes Winter 2021 Newsletter: