From rehabilitation research to Smyrna City Council, School of Biological Sciences Associate Professor Lewis Wheaton has served as a leader in many areas throughout his time at Georgia Tech. With new appointments as the inaugural director of the College of Science’s Center for Promoting Inclusion and Equity in the Sciences (C-PIES) and as an advisor on the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Advisory Board on Medical Rehabilitation Research, Wheaton will lead in two more spaces on campus, in community, and beyond.

 

The Center for Promoting Inclusion and Equity in the Sciences

The creation of C-PIES is a new milestone in the College’s long standing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, as well as a key pillar of its 10-year strategic plan.

With a mission “to recruit, support and retain a diverse population for all sectors of our community ― staff, faculty, and students ― and build an inclusive community that broadens access to science and mathematics and creates opportunities for advancement,” C-PIES will continue to expand DEI programming across the College of Sciences community.

Prior to the creation of C-PIES, Keith Oden, who retired in December 2020 following a 35-year career with Georgia Tech, served as director of Academic Diversity for the College for ten years. With a focus on student recruitment and retention, Oden’s expertise, outreach, and mentoring transformed the lives of students and the College of Sciences community.

“From reflections and conversations with College of Sciences colleagues, I became convinced that a center focused around broadening access and creating a diverse community would be more effective than tasking a single individual with all programmatic elements needed to advance our DEI mission,” said College of Sciences Dean and Betsy Middleton and John Clark Sutherland Chair Susan Lozier in a community letter this summer.

Now, working in tandem with Dean Lozier, ADVANCE Professor Jean Lynch-Stieglitz, and the College’s associate and assistant deans, as inaugural C-PIES Director, Wheaton will lead the Center in implementing recommendations from the College’s Task Force on Racial Equity, coalescing collaborative work across the College’s six schools, and leading new and ongoing DEI efforts.

“I am excited about this new direction and its potential for making significant progress toward our goal of creating a diverse and inclusive community,” Lozier noted in sharing Wheaton’s appointment with the College of Sciences community earlier this August.

 

Science and Service

Along with leading C-PIES, Wheaton will continue his focus on research and community leadership beyond Georgia Tech. Since joining Georgia Tech in 2008, Wheaton has directed the Cognitive Motor Control Lab, where he strives to improve the lives of people with upper-limb amputations and those who have had strokes through a deeper understanding of the neurophysiology of motor learning.

Outside the lab, Wheaton has worked across communities on campus – serving on the College of Sciences Task Force on Racial Equity and Georgia Tech’s working group on Race and Racism in Contemporary Biomedicine, and being named the 2021 Faculty Diversity Champion for Georgia Tech – as well as throughout Georgia.

Along with serving as a member of the Smyrna City Council since first elected in 2019, Wheaton also helped shape rehabilitation policy and management in the state of Georgia as a Governor-appointed member of the State Rehabilitation Council during a six-year term.

We recently spoke with Wheaton about C-PIES, serving on NIH’s National Advisory Board on Medical Rehabilitation Research, and progress and service across Georgia Tech, and beyond.

 

A Conversation with Lewis Wheaton

Q: What was your initial reaction to the creation of the C-PIES, when it was announced in April?

A: Probably a mix of excitement, enthusiasm, and a little bit of trepidation to be honest. I think when you start talking about equity and inclusion, those are loaded concepts and very loaded terms, and people define them very differently. So, the trepidation side was more ‘Okay, how is the community going to receive something like this center as a whole?’

At the same time, I reflected on a lot of the conversations that I had with people one-on-one, and also as a result of being a part of the [College of Sciences Task Force on Racial Equity], and there’s a lot of encouragement there. This is the kind of thing that I think, by and large, people in the College want to see and are excited about. It’s a new type of opportunity for the College and it’s something that people want to rally around. So, it was a constellation of all of that all at once.

 

Q: What interested you about the opportunity to direct the Center?

A: Similarly, my initial feelings, honestly, including the trepidation.

I love science. I’m really, really passionate about what I do, and I’m passionate to the point of wanting to make sure that everyone gets the opportunity to at least be exposed to the possibility of doing science – and specifically doing it here at Georgia Tech. That means a lot to me. Given where [Georgia Tech is] seated within this community, within this region, within this area, we have a unique opportunity here. We should be an attractive force for doing not only science that focuses on or considers equity and inclusion, but that is being done by a population of scientists that is reflective of the broader community around us.

Those opportunities really jumped out to me as something that would be exciting to me – exciting to lead, exciting to figure out how to collaborate with other groups to [accomplish these goals]. Pulling from some other experiences that I’ve had at other places, I just thought, “you know, this could be fun.” And I think we are at a good time to do something like this.

 

Q: You’ve been involved in a lot of community efforts – a race and racism in biomedicine working group, middle school outreach with Georgia Tech CEISMC (Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing), Science Day in the Park with GTRI (Georgia Tech Research Institute), and more. What is your approach to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as a sense of community?

A: I think it starts with having honest conversation. By that, I mean really getting past statistics, talking points, and all these other things. Really get to understanding what the challenges are and what the perceptions are.

Also, because I tend to like to know how we’re going to move forward, it’s being very focused on very actionable goals. Being very clear about “Okay, these are the things that we can do now, these are the things that we can maybe target down the line, and these are the things that will be in our 10-year plan.”

We have very concrete, actionable steps that we can take to move things forward. But at the same time, also always communicating with people about what we’re doing, maybe even sometimes what we’re not doing. That clarity and that focus are, I think, what you have to have when you’re dealing with this type of issue, unfortunately because it is sensitive sometimes. But I think that’s what’s needed here.

 

Q: What are some of the main challenges you see this center as a whole facing?

A: You know, I think perception is everything. I’m going to be honest, [this topic] can be very uncomfortable for some people, and something that some people just disagree with – or that they think they disagree with, I should probably say.

Perception suggests that this center might focus on one thing, but in reality, the perspective is usually much broader. I think a lot of people will immediately think “Oh, this is just about bringing in more women or more people of color into different units.” It could include that. But it could also be, “What scientific questions are we asking? How are we responding to equity needs of our immediate community? To the state? To the nation? Are we asking sharp enough scientific questions that are immediate to some of the needs that are clearly emerging from funding agencies and other organizations that focus on inequity?” That is a part of this, too.

 

Q: As the inaugural leader of the Center, what immediate goals do you envision for yourself? Your long-term goals for C-PIES?

A: To start with the latter, I hope that the Center, as it evolves, turns into a real catalyst for change. Change not just in building a better community, diversifying our community, and promoting better inclusion, but also creating a catalyst for new questions, new horizons that we should be pursuing that are really addressing the needs of the community. I would love to see the Center evolve in that direction.

To get there though, the first things I’m excited about doing initially are having conversations. Let’s, as campus leaders, get people together and really, just conversate about these issues. Let’s see what our various levels of comfort and sensitivity are around these things. Do we even understand some of these words and phrases and what they mean? Because they’re complicated and they come with a lot of emotion.

Also, starting to identify opportunities for growth within various units within the College that are ripe for development in this area, and going after resources nationally or at the state level to try to move the needle forward in terms of the type of people we have in our labs, the type of people we have teaching, the types of folks that we have sitting in faculty units across campus. Let’s really think innovatively about how we can be a leader in this area.

What’s exciting and inspiring to me is that we see a lot of other universities around the country, and even some of our competitors, that are boldly pursuing sustainable DEI efforts. That tells me it can be done — we just have to do it. That’s all it is, it’s very simple. It sounds complicated and messy, but in reality, it’s incredibly simple. You just have to want to do it.

 

Q: What are you most looking forward to as you start this new position?

A: I’m just excited to get started. I’m excited to do the work and see the change.

I am convinced that once we, as a community, acknowledge that this is not as hard and messy and complicated as it sounds – once we’re over that barrier, then we can really have progress. But we still have to make sure that we are all united, and clear on that barrier. And that’s what I’m excited about.

 

Rehabilitation Research and Beyond

Q: As a member of NIH’s National Advisory Board on Medical Rehabilitation Research board, you will be advising the directors of NIH, National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Can you elaborate on what that will entail?

A: A lot of this really focuses on trying to get feedback from the scientific community about the types of discoveries that we need to be making to really move the rehabilitation needle forward. Rehabilitation, in the broadest terms, includes disorders, nervous system injuries, all kinds of things that need rehabilitation.

That’s a broad aspect of NIH’s portfolio. This board will be critical to ensuring that NIH-funded medical rehabilitation research continues to be at the tip of the spear of innovation. I am excited to be on the Advisory Board to make sure that we are thinking proactively about the way that science is emerging, even how our trainees are emerging, to make sure that the funding priorities are aligned with the questions that we need to ask on the ground.

 

Q: What was your reaction to NIH asking you to serve on this board?

A: I was kind of surprised, actually. I think this is a really exciting opportunity, and it felt good for NIH to reach out and ask me to do something like this. To me it was absolutely a no brainer to accept it.

 

Q: What are your main goals as an advisor?

A: I’m certainly in a space where I care a lot about rehabilitation, particularly with limb loss and stroke. But I’m also very interested in understanding how we can better intersect computational and engineering aspects into sciences to ask better questions — and how we can use all these things together to understand how to move rehabilitation forward. I’m excited to share my perspective from this space, and to really get at the root of some of these questions.

Another big area is “telerehab” – it’s taking off as an industry and taking off as a science, as well. That’s great, but we still have bedrock scientific questions that we need to understand about the efficacy of telerehab approaches. So those are the types of things I’m excited to think about on this advisory panel, and to try to hopefully have some influence on how we’re shaping these types of things and the funding priorities that need to emerge from NIH.

 

Q: In addition to these new positions, you are also a member of Smyrna City Council — and you teach, advise students, and run a research lab. How do you balance all of that?

A: I have a wonderful wife – we are very supportive of each other when it comes to this kind of stuff.

Also, it’s really seeing the common threads of thought between everything. Being on City Council, in many ways, is not unlike being in academia. There are a lot of meetings, that’s very similar. But the thought process, the way you’re doing things, the way you’re going about trying to solve problems is very scientific. So, it feels kind of natural. When I go into all of the spaces that I’m in, I try to at least have that as a common thread, where I’m approaching things in the most genuine way that I can. I’m a scientist, so that’s how I’m going to approach things.

At a practical level, it’s finding balance between these things so that I can honestly give them my full commitment and know that in that moment, that’s what I’m focusing on. If I’m talking to one of my students, in that moment they have all of my attention. If I’m talking to a constituent in my ward, they have my full attention. I want to be actionable and responsive to all the needs of that person. It’s not easy — I’m not going to say it’s trivial, but it’s a balance that you just learn how to strike.

As well, I’ll say, in all aspects of these areas, there are great people. The staff that I get to work within each one of these spaces is exceptional. I’d be lying if I said I was doing it all myself – there are a lot of people that help pull me through all these areas. They really deserve a lot of credit.