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A Hand in Research: From CSU classroom to Cleveland Clinic Hand Lab, doctoral student Joe Gabra is fulfilling a lifelong dream

Joseph Gabra, Applied Biomedical Engineering Doctoral Student
Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, Washkewicz College of Engineering in joint partnership with the Cleveland Clinic

"I am constantly motivated by my drive to learn and to do what I can to help other people. I hope that in the future, my career will allow me to really make an impact in the world scientifically. I do not know exactly what my long term plans are, but I do know that I would like to eventually become a professor and help students as my professors have done for me."

In the early 1990s, five-year old Joseph Gabra meandered the halls of CSU’s Stillwell Hall (now Fenn Hall) with his mother, Vivian Neckar, while she pursued her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Gabra recalls, “I remember how nice the faculty were to the students and to me.” When his mother graduated, Gabra began to think about his own future career. In high school, Gabra fell in love with biomedical engineering. “It was at this point that it became my dream to work at the Cleveland Clinic and to get a doctorate in biomedical engineering,” shared Gabra.  With a bachelor’s degree from Case Western Reserve University, Gabra decided to pursue doctoral studies in Applied Biomedical Engineering in the Washkewicz College of Engineering joint program with the Cleveland Clinic (CC).  Grateful to be admitted to the partnership program, Gabra felt at home at Cleveland State and remarked that as a student, “I got to experience how nice, helpful, and brilliant the CSU faculty were.”

This past summer, Gabra officially began his research in carpal tunnel mechanics in the CC laboratory working toward the goal of noninvasive treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome.  Gabra first met his faculty research advisor, Dr. Zong-Ming Li, as an applicant to the CSU program. He found a suitable match in the Hand Lab at the Cleveland Clinic, where his research activities focus on carpal tunnel mechanics and hand sensorimotor function with a clinical focus on carpal tunnel syndrome. Through the mentorship of Dr. Li, Gabra has been involved in many projects ranging from cadaveric studies to experiments in the operating room. (For further information about the laboratory, visit:

Twice a year, an award is given to one graduate student and one post-doctoral fellow for their outstanding work to provide financial support for presentations at scientific meetings.  Gabra was selected as the recipient of the false2014 Travel Award sponsored by the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Lerner Research Institute.  He is pictured here with D. Geoffrey Vince, Ph.D., Biomedical Engineering Chair at the Cleveland Clinic.  Gabra has also contributed to numerous publications in hand research. His dissertation research (described below) focuses on the biomechanics of the carpal arch, a structural component of the carpal tunnel. 

Gabra plans to cycle across the United States after graduating this summer and then plans to enter industry or pursue a postdoctoral research position.

Over 30 Cleveland Clinic researchers serve as adjunct faculty at Cleveland State University. The ABE specialization is administered through the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at Cleveland State University and is staffed by faculty members from both Cleveland State University and Cleveland Clinic. Students can pursue their doctoral research at either institution or at both, depending on the selected research topic and advisor. 

Visit for further details about the joint partnership or contact ABE chairperson and program director, Joanne Belovich, Ph.D., Cleveland State University.


Carpal Tunnel Research
by Joseph Gabra

falseThe carpal tunnel is formed by the carpal bones posteriorly and anteriorly by the transverse carpal ligament. The transverse carpal ligament arches over the carpal tunnel contents (i.e. flexor tendons and median nerve) spanning from the hook of the hamate to the ridge of the trapezium at the distal tunnel. This distance between these two endpoints is known as the distal carpal arch width (CAW). The CAW narrows and widens during daily hand activities that involve wrist movement and grasping tasks. Furthermore, widening and narrowing of the CAW, from surgical and nonsurgical intervention, play roles in reducing median nerve compression. The biomechanics of the carpal tunnel in regards to changes in the CAW is usually considered in particular cross-sections. However, the carpal arch is a complex structure that is oblique to the anatomical axes.

The overall goal of my dissertation is to investigate the three-dimensional biomechanics of the carpal tunnel associated with the CAW. My research focuses on manipulating the carpal arch endpoints experimentally and computationally, in three research projects, to examine its biomechanical effects on the carpal tunnel.

The information gained from the three following research projects will provide a more comprehensive understanding of biomechanics the carpal tunnel:

  1. The first project investigates carpal joint rotations when the carpal arch width is narrowed or widened to observe which joints are more mobile. Citation for the publication that resulted from the project: Gabra JN, Domalain M, Li ZM. Movement of the distal carpal row during narrowing and widening of the carpal arch width. Journal of Biomechanical Engineering, 134(10): 101004, 2012.
  2. This project quantifies the three-dimensional stiffness of the carpal tunnel to identify directions of force application where the stiffness is either at a minimum or a maximum.  
  3. In the last project, I am developing a wrist model to examine joint and ligaments stresses in response to changes in the CAW.

Overall, this project will provide insight into manipulation strategies that efficiently change the CAW with minimal increases in the joint and ligament stresses. The manipulation strategies can then be used clinically to reduce mechanical insult to the median nerve and potentially alleviate symptoms associated with median nerve compression (i.e. carpal tunnel syndrome).