Skip to content

How can we provide better care for patients with severe brain injuries? That’s the mission of this Northeastern graduate

Olivia Rowe, who is conducting research on treatment for stroke patients, works in an MRI lab.
Northeastern graduate Olivia Rowe, works in the MRI lab inside the ISEC building on Northeastern’s Boston campus on April 1, 2024. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Severe traumatic brain injuries can be difficult to treat for a myriad of reasons. For one, a blow to the brain can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to function, from moving their arms and legs to reasoning and recalling memories.   

Additionally, it can be difficult for doctors to give families answers about their loved one’s prognosis and long-term outlook.   

In a lot of cases, those families must take a wait-and-see approach. 

“There’s so many other neurological conditions — like Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease — that when someone and their family is given this diagnosis, we’re able to tell them what the next five to 10 years of their life is going to look like,” says Northeastern University graduate and cognitive research scientist Olivia Rowe. “With a brain injury, it rips someone’s life away from them, and we don’t really have the prognostic model of what their life is going to look like.”

Rowe will work to help develop those prognosis models as she pursues a doctorate in medicine at Cambridge University in the U.K. this fall. 

Rowe, who graduated from Northeastern in 2019, is the recipient of a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship. The scholarship was established in 2000 after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated $210 million to Cambridge University. 

Only 25 students from the U.S. are selected to be recipients annually. She is the first Northeastern graduate to receive the scholarship since 2007.  

“It’s an incredible opportunity to conduct my dream research project,” Rowe says.

Rowe lays out the need for more comprehensive models and frameworks for doctors and medical professions to turn to as they treat these populations. 

“If you talk to anyone in the brain injury/stroke space, they’ll talk about this need for a robust algorithm for providing care,” she says. “For severe brain injury patients who may have a disorder of consciousness, there comes a time to make a decision about withdrawing life-sustaining care, and that’s not always done appropriately.”

Rowe is a senior research associate at Cognito Therapeutics Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is working with Alzheimer’s populations and conducting research to determine the best treatment plans for those living with the condition. Before that, she worked as a clinical research coordinator at the MGH/HST Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging. 

Rowe first became interested in the science of the brain after her mother suffered from a traumatic brain injury, causing damage to her frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is responsible for controlling how a person thinks and retains memories.

Rowe was 11 at the time and the experience helped her realize the important role the brain has in helping us function.  

“I saw how the brain composed who we are and how quickly that could be altered,” she says. 

She came into Northeastern as a psychology major, but found a love for neuroscience as she took classes at the university focused on the subject. She went on to declare a minor in neuroscience. 

One highlight was her honors thesis project she completed under Charles Hillman, a Northeastern professor of physical therapy, human movement and rehabilitation sciences. 

“That taught me how to think independently as a scientist and how to approach research questions,” she says.  

But it was a co-op at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital that helped solidify her love for working with brain injury patients. 

She worked at the hospital as a rehabilitation aide, assisting with occupational and physical therapy tasks.  

“You’re helping execute care plans,” she says. “If someone is learning to walk again, and they need a set of people, you’re jumping in and helping a physical therapist with that,” Rowe says. 

“Occupational therapy is more of those day-to-day life activities, like helping someone learn to shower again, helping them go to the bathroom and brush their teeth,” she adds.  

The experience helped put her research into a real-world context, and she went on to work at the hospital for three years after her co-op was completed. 

“The patients that really stuck out to me were the ones who stay in a coma or a ‘minimally conscious state’” she says. “So many family members I can think of who see their loved ones in that state don’t have clear answers.” 

At Cambridge University, Rowe is hoping to help those families get those answers. 

“If we better understand the patient’s journey, the second step would be to develop more effective therapeutics along that journey.”