As a youngster, Paulo Aco always liked visiting his dad’s workplace. His father, John, was a computer engineer in the technology department at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital. “I remember him taking me to work. There were huge computers and wires everywhere,” Aco says. John had immigrated from the Philippines in the 1990s and saved up enough money to bring over his wife and two young sons in 2001. Like many proud parents, he hoped that his oldest child would get a good education and then follow in his footsteps.
Aco, 25, ended up working in a hospital, too, but not in the way his father expected. Aco is a research project coordinator at another major Chicago hospital, Shirley Ryan AbilityLab where he is involved in several studies led by Miriam Rafferty, PT, DPT, PhD, a Research Scientist and Director of Implementation Science. The studies Aco works on focus on employment among people with Parkinson’s disease. One study tracks support services accessed and changes in employment in people with Parkinson’s disease. Aco also helps to manage a support group for people with Parkinson’s disease who want to discuss employment.
Aco, who spoke only Tagalog when he arrived in the U.S., remembers quickly learning English from his friends in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. He became a top student in his high school but his real passion was always sports. Playing sports or watching one of Chicago’s numerous sports teams was what he really loved to do. “I was always a very active person,” Aco says. When he graduated from high school and landed a full-ride scholarship to DePauw University in rural Greencastle, Indiana, Aco was pleased to learn he could major in kinesiology, the study of exercise and human biomechanics.
Moving from an urban neighborhood to a small town in Indiana was a culture shock, he acknowledges: “I often found myself being the only nonwhite person in the classroom.” Again, Aco quickly adapted and became the president of his fraternity. Despite not having to worry about tuition, he didn’t want to be a financial burden on his family, which now included three younger siblings. He worked a variety of jobs, including cleaning the kitchens of sororities and being a team assistant during college sporting events. “I tried to be as independent as possible. I would rather have my family’s funds go toward my younger siblings than me,” he says.
On top of all that, Aco also worked as a researcher in DePauw’s Kinesiology Department, where he gathered data for a project looking into whether people who grasped the handrails on an inclined treadmill were burning more calories than those who were walking flat. The somewhat surprising answer was no. By holding on to the treadmill at a certain incline, the walkers essentially negated the effect of the incline. Aco presented his research at the American College of Sports Medicine Midwest Conference in 2019.
Aco graduated with a kinesiology major and history minor in the spring of 2020 and entered a master’s program the following fall at the University of Illinois Chicago. Thinking he wanted to be a clinician, he interned in a cardiac rehabilitation unit at UI Health but kept one foot in the research world. For one project, he reviewed studies evaluating the effects of marijuana use on cardiovascular disease and concluded it should be considered a risk factor on par with cigarette smoking.
As he did in his undergraduate years, Aco had side gigs, working part-time at Athletico, a chain of physical therapy centers, and as a graduate assistant teaching undergraduate courses in exercise physiology. Aco finished his master’s in the spring of 2022 and was hired as a project coordinator at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in the fall.
These days, Aco is a researcher by day and a weight lifter by night. He heads to the gym after work five days a week to exercise and strength train. “It’s just a hobby,” he says. “When I finish work at 5 p.m., I always have a lot of energy. Going to the gym benefits me physically and mentally.” On his two days off, Aco goes for long walks with his Labradoodle, Appa. He still lives in Lincoln Square in his family’s three-flat. He has a floor all to himself but heads upstairs most nights for some of his mother’s delicious Filipino cooking.
Aco is taking his time thinking about his next career move, which may involve getting a professional degree in physical therapy, known as a DPT. But for now, he says, life is good. “I’m able to work at a leading rehabilitation institution while also having great work-life balance. I’m close to my family, my life-long friends and my dog. What else could I want?”