BF+DA Research Fellow Russell Joye To Focus on Helping Dad with Parkinsons

BF+DA Research Fellow Russell Joye’s father Michael

When BF+DA Research Fellow Russell Joye first started out as a Finance Major/Music minor at Georgetown University in 2004, he had four years to gain the foresight necessary to realize that perhaps success was more than just money. So after he left Georgetown, he started a band with a friend, and took a stab at being a drummer with hopes of being “the next big thing” tucked close under wing. You know, the things we all sort of want to do but never have the guts to follow through on thanks to expectations from parents and society. But though the freedom from music and odd jobs and having a pretty unstructured life was fun, Joye felt his last stab at still being a kid had run its course.

Joye says there were a host of factors at play like his band slowly dissolving because of some bad attitudes and then some curve balls from life.

“My uncle had been diagnosed with Parkinsons years earlier, but my dad was diagnosed around this time in 2010, so that certainly played a significant role. I guess I felt that the impact I could have on the world as a drummer was far less meaningful than what I might be able to do as a healer,” says Joye who decided to start attending the Harvard University Extension School Premed Postbacc Program for the next two years in which he also worked in research in Boston area hospitals simultaneously.

It was in his first semester at Medical University of South Carolina in the fall of 2014, (and just post-Harvard), that he decided to withdraw from school and that things started shifting again.

“I was seeing physicians and colleagues expressing dissatisfaction looking at admin burdens, hospitals were merging and driving private practitioners out, there were uncomfortable power plays at hand and as I got closer to graduating from medical school, I realized once again I was making the wrong decision,” says Joye.

So he did the next logical thing a person searching for meaning with most of a degree from medical school would do, he started driving a pedi cab. But now at 30, Joye asked himself deeper questions about the culmination of all he’d learned in three decades not just from school but from life and if he could distill it all into one thing, what would it be?

His dad, a former lawyer in the insurance space, had just started struggling with Parkinsons, a disease known for its incurable and progressive effects on a person’s motion. Patients suffer from tremors, rigid limbs, slow movement, and problems with balance and walking and watching his father’s slow degradation from it was having a huge impact not just on his life but on his whole family’s life.

“You can read all you want about it but until you see it first hand. You just don’t know how debilitating and life-altering even the smallest movements become,” says Joye. “Seeing that and having a front row seat drove me more to medicine and how I could help families dealing with similar health issues.”

Russell Joye and his dad Michael Joye

Joye honed in on an emerging body of science that became the genesis of his current direction: the idea that tactile cueing built into clothing can help Parkinson’s patients to move better. By creating garments to help people move more efficiently, his past, including medical school and even the movement required to drive a pedi cab became assets to his focus.

Utilizing that medical training also shone a light on the difficulties experienced by movement disorders patients, and he set out to design wearables that short-circuit blocked neural pathways using tactile feedback.

“The simplest human movements require a symphony of systems working together as one. Constructing products that enable smooth, stable ambulation involves the marriage of engineering, design and medicine. I’m merging my collected expertise from these three disciplines to build movement solutions,” says Joye.

Working at Oscar Health since 2017, a health insurance company that includes a team of mission-driven individuals from the halls of technology, health care, politics, design, and data, Joye might have a full time day job but it’s inspiring him with his current research. For his research at the BF+DA Joye will be building clothing that utilizes haptic feedback to cue movement. The BF+DA will provide state of the art production resources, design, engineering and sustainability expertise as well as a vast network in the wearable space, all of which are invaluable resources.

“It’s not that having a disease or a physical challenge is any more or less stigmatized now than in the past. It’s like when we see wheelchairs and canes we understand that someone has an inability to function as a 100% healthy human being. There’s this stigma that I want to conceal for the patients themselves so that they can continue to get better without it being so obvious,” says Joye.

“Ultimately the goal is to help my dad. He needs solutions now. I’m lucky to be in a space like the BF+DA that checks all the boxes to help me get closer to my goal.”

Learn more about Russell here.