Dr. Milos Popovic
Dr. Popovic (right) delivers functional electrical stimulation (FES) therapy to a patient to improve upper limb function. FES helps generate movement in people who have been paralyzed due to injury. (Photo: UHN)

On the pinky finger of Dr. Milos Popovic's left hand is an onyx and gold ring, reminiscent of the type of jewelle​ry a Godfather in modern day cinema would wear.

This comparison isn't a mere coincidence.

The ring, which was a gift from his colleagues upon being named Institute Director, Research, at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI), is a humorous nod to his patriarchal reputation. One he developed over 17 years as the Neural Engineering and Therapeutics Team Leader in his lab at Toronto Rehab's Lyndhurst Centre.

"I treat my lab like a family business," says Dr. Popovic, who became the director in January. "I care deeply for the people I work with, and at any given time, they know they're protected and loved."

This notion of family is one he plans to extend to all colleagues at TRI.

"I want all our students and scientists to feel like this is their home. My intention is to create an environment where people can be themselves, enjoy what they're doing, work toward a common goal, and excel. Not just be good, but excel."

At TRI, excelling means one thing: solving practical problems.

It's a mission Dr. Popovic faces head-on with an urgency that was ingrained in him over 20 years ago when he started working with patients with spinal cord injuries (SCI).

'We want to either prevent a problem from happening, or contain it'

Born in Belgrade, Serbia, Dr. Popovic came to the University of Toronto in 1991 to obtain a PhD in mechanical engineering. He then moved back to Europe where he worked as a biomedical engineer at a hospital in Zurich. There he had the privilege of interacting daily with SCI patients and was profoundly affected by the level of disability their injury caused.

"I thought, 'that person is not going to be able to wait 25 years for someone to discover a cure. What can I do for them right now, so they can go home, back to work, and get their life back, substantially,'" he says.

"That's what occupied my imagination and became a driving force - and what all of us at Toronto Rehab see as the need: solving problems right now."  

At TRI, that need has translated into the invention of mobility devices that allow an aging population to move around their homes; the creation of virtual platforms that enable patients with physical disabilities to access care from the comfort of their homes; the development of wearable supports that reduce the risk of back injury among homecare workers.

It also translates into the development of the new CRANIA project, which, under Dr. Popovic's leadership, received an unprecedented $16.3 million in funding, to create advanced neuromodulation therapies.

These therapies will stimulate regions of the brain associated with diseases and conditions such as epilepsy, depression, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries, potentially modifying their progression and effects.

Under Dr. Popovic's leadership, there will be an increased push to get solutions out to the community, to hospitals, to people at home, and to their caregivers.

"We want to either prevent a problem from happening, or contain it," he says.

"It's not very sexy, but it'll change lives for the better. It's the right thing to do."​

Dr. Milos Popovic received UHN’s 2014 Inventor of the Year Award for the creation of MyndMove, which helps people with paralysis regain movement in their arms and hands. (Video: UHN)

Celebrating the culture of TRI

Preventing illness and injury, restoring function quickly following injury or illness and enabling people to age in their own homes independently are the three priorities that Dr. Popovic shares with TRI's outgoing director and Senior Scientist, Dr. Geoff Fernie.

In fact, it was Dr. Fernie who led the creation of the culture of the research institute around these themes. An accomplishment Dr. Popovic hopes he can perpetuate.  

"When you're part of something that is exciting and extraordinary, you want to celebrate it," he explains.

"It's a great privilege to inherit the most outstanding research institute in the rehab field from Geoff. I hope I can rise to the occasion. The bar is very high."

But Dr. Fernie is confident in his successor and says he's handing over the reins with a sense of excitement.

"Milos is the kind of person we look up to and he believes in the future of TRI. He's a decisive leader. A kind man. A man with a vision that will challenge all of us. I will be there to support his leadership and help him achieve his vision in every way possible."

Along with continuing to make an impact, Dr. Popovic is also focused on ensuring that the integrity of TRI's output remains impeccable.

"We're the number-one research institution in the world. When you're number one people are always trying to find flaws in in what you're doing," he says.

"We need to make sure we keep our standards high. It's all about the quality of research, the people we train, and the reputation of the institution."

How will Dr. Popovic measure success in this role? Part of the answer is found in how he's chosen to define it.

"The director's role is to create an environment where people can achieve their maximum potential and generate exciting and impactful results, and then put these results in the proper framework in the external world so the that the external world can fully benefit from it."

"My hope is that when people pick up a product with the TRI logo on it, they'll look at it differently. When they pick up a journal that TRI has published a paper in they'll say, 'I need to read this because there will be something in here that I could learn from, or be relevant to my work.'"

But the real measure he says is in how much TRI benefits patients and their families.

"If we can continue to make an impact, it will be a sign that I've done my job well."​

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