COEH Profile: Carisa Harris-Adamson Appointed New Director of Ergonomics

It has been a standout year for Carisa Harris-Adamson, PhD ‘11. In January 2016, she was appointed director of the University of California Ergonomics Program, replacing professor emeritus and former director David Rempel. In June 2015, she was awarded the Don Chaffin Award for Best Ergonomics Speaker/Presentation at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Exposition in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Yet one of her most memorable achievements came from her lesser known role as co-founder and board chair of the Treasure Island Sailing Center, a non-profit that launched Set Sail Learn in October 2015 as a permanent STEM program for fourth graders in the San Francisco Unified School District. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. Set Sail Learn students are taught about sustainable and renewable energy while being introduced to sailing. “That’s been really fun because it’s a way to get every fourth grader out on the water,” says Harris-Adamson. “They all get asked back and we’ve never turned a child away — anyone in the city who wants to go to sailing camp — we find money for them to go.”

Photo: Carisa Harris-Adamson
Carisa Harris-Adamson

An accomplished sailor, Carisa Harris-Adamson says the sport taught her skills that she uses to this day, “everything from time management and independence to resilience.” After training for the 1996 Olympics, Harris-Adamson’s first job was teaching a high school sailing team in San Francisco. “I looked around me and realized the only kids that were on my team were ones whose parents either sailed or could afford a membership. It just needed to change.” That realization led her to create the Treasure Island Sailing Center Foundation, which offers sailing scholarships to thousands of San Francisco Bay Area children each year.

Formerly a professor of physical therapy at Samuel Merritt University, Harris-Adamson says she is enjoying the Ergonomics Program’s multidisciplinary environment. “I really appreciate that I have students from the UCSF Occupational and Environmental Medicine program and Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing program. Then, from UC Berkeley, I have students from epidemiology and industrial hygiene through the Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) program and students from Mechanical Engineering that focus on prevention through design. It really contributes to the multidisciplinary aspect of the lab.”

“I hope to also attract physical therapists into ergonomics. Physical therapists (PT) are underrepresented in ergonomics here in the United States, though they have lots to contribute to the field,” credits Harris-Adamson. Her goal is to introduce more PTs at UCSF and Samuel Merritt University to the option of ergonomics for clinical specialty and graduate research.

One of her research interests is cardiovascular endpoints associated with occupational health, particularly those that are either due to sedentary behavior or due to heavy physiological workloads. “I intend on adding some capability to the lab to look at various cardiovascular endpoints and more work physiology,” adds Harris-Adamson.

In 2009, she received a NIOSH Career Development Award titled, “Healthy Worker Survivor Bias in the Assessment of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Associated Work Disability.” The grant allowed Harris-Adamson to expand on previous collaborations with David Rempel and Ellen Eisen, head of EHS. “My hope is that once the research is finished, we have a better way of identifying those individuals who are at risk for high morbidity from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.”

She is also interested in helping transfer knowledge to ergonomic problems in the developing world. “We have a student going to Tanzania to look at the impact of women carrying large loads on their head.” The tradition may be associated with a high prevalence of uterine prolapse and musculoskeletal discomfort, according to Harris-Adamson. She is collaborating with Michael Bates, who was first drawn to the issue through his studies in Nepal. “I’ve been thrilled to work with him on it because I just think there has to be something we can do to make their day-to-day life better.”

As the new Ergonomics Director, Harris-Adamson plans to continue and expand on what Rempel started. “David did such a fantastic job building a comprehensive program with a lot of resources and a great success rate. It’s nice to be able to walk into a program with that history.” Her vision is to get the Program accredited by the board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (CPE). “That will allow all of our graduates to automatically sit for that CPE exam, the gold standard for ergonomists in the field.”

Additionally, Harris-Adamson aspires to develop a comprehensive post-professional program, “a method to advance people who are currently working in the field, but maybe can’t come back for a full-time PhD program. There are a lot of ergonomists who don’t have any kind of certification,” notes Harris-Adamson, who believes that greater access to training and education will help with the translation of research to practice and ultimately protect more workers from developing debilitating injuries.

Learn more about the UC Berkeley Erogonomics Program.

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