T. Richard Nichols
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T. Richard Nichols

Richard Nichols obtained his Bachelor’s degree in biology at Brown University. While at Brown he completed his first research on invertebrate sensory receptors and reflexes. He then pursued his doctoral research in the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School with James Houk with Elwood Henneman as an additional mentor. His results supported a new hypothesis that the stretch reflex, rather than controlling muscular length, acts to transform the mechanical properties of skeletal muscles to make the muscle behave in a spring-like fashion, a function that is consistent with terrestrial movement and posture. This work helped to open the emerging field of neuromechanics, in which equal emphasis is placed on the study of the nervous system and on the physiological system that is controlled.

Following postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Alberta, he began his first faculty position in 1979 in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Washington. The experience of teaching the structure of the human musculoskeletal system heightened his awareness that the physiology of the intact musculoskeletal system cannot be understood from knowledge of isolated muscles, but is governed by additional complex relationships such as inertial forces that affect coordination. Following the closure of the Department of Kinesiology, Nichols was recruited to the Department of Physiology at Emory University by Robert Gunn, where he rose through the ranks to the rank of Full Professor and ultimately Acting Chair when Dr. Gunn became terminally ill. During this time, he and his students worked to understand how sensory feedback from Golgi tendon organs is organized in the spinal cord to represent the complex mechanical relationships among muscles of the mammalian limb. He also served as the Director of the Medical Physiology course and director of the Graduate Program in Physiology and Pharmacology, and helped develop the physiology curriculum in the new Department of Biomedical Engineering. In addition, he received the first award for mentorship from the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. He also began a close association with the Division of Physical Therapy at Emory, contributing to teaching physical therapy students and serving as a consultant to the Executive Committee of the American Physical Therapy Association.  

Following his term as Acting Chair, Nichols was recruited in 2007 to be Chair of the School of Applied Physiology at Georgia Tech. His research remained focused on the physiological role of sensory feedback from Golgi tendon organs to contribute to posture and balance during voluntary movement, work that has been continually funded mainly by two grants from the NIH since 1981. Nichols also serves as Chair of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and also served on the Animal Experimentation Committee of the American Physiological Society. His return to the role of a full professor occurred in 2016 with the merger of the School of Applied Physiology into the School of Biological Sciences. He has recently been awarded an honorary membership in the American Physical Therapy Association for his contributions to research and mentorship in the rehabilitation sciences. He has recently completed a term as President of The Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology, with contributions to the LCME medical objectives and to undergraduate physiology education.



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