Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance launches at the intersection of athletics and science

Aug. 16, 2021, 2:45 p.m.

To most, “peak performance” conjures images of elite athletes and impossible physical feats. To the Stanford-led Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, however, peak performance is all about maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle for all people.

The Alliance is a scientific partnership between Stanford and five other universities, focused on improving human health through innovation. The initiative is funded by Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai ’88. The project launched last week under a leadership team of former athletes, scientific researchers and professors, all of whom are divided into a Leadership, Science Advisory and Sports Councils.

Unlike many other human health projects which tend to be focused on disease, the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance is unique in focusing on prevention and wellness, according to members of its leadership team.

“The Alliance will focus on how we can help all people thrive throughout their lifespan. We are working closely with athletes, coaches, trainers and clinicians to understand the most pressing needs for injury recovery and prevention; this will be a key component of the Alliance’s efforts,” Jennifer Hicks M.S.’06 Ph.D ’10, who serves as the Collaborative Research Programs lead in the Alliance, said.

Cindy Chang, who works in primary sports medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and is on the Sports Advisory Council, believes that the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance’s focus on injury prevention, rather than post-treatment, is crucial for the healthcare sector.

“We [doctors] don’t get paid to counsel and educate about prevention. They reimburse us more for interventions and procedures than they do for the counseling, preventative care, or the medical exam,” Chang said. “And that’s what I think has skewed it toward that type of emphasis on diagnosis and the treatment of diseases.”

The Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance is unusual not only for what it focuses on, but also for whom. Instead of exclusively researching the “peak performance” elite athletes, the Alliance is taking an equity-informed view, according to its leaders.

NiCole Keith, a professor of kinesiology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, became interested in the Alliance because she wanted to study people with limited access to resources. Keith is a member of the Science Advisory Council in the Alliance.

“Here is a great opportunity to understand where everyone is, so that we can give them what they need, based on what they already have in terms of genetics, biology, physiology, but also in terms of their environment,” Keith said.

The Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance will also be utilizing an open-access approach in an attempt to spur innovation and contribute to the greater good more effectively, according to the Alliance’s National Leadership Council chair and Stanford professor of bioengineering and mechanical engineering Scott Delp M.S. ’86 Ph.D. ’90.

“One of the key principles that we established is to run the Alliance as an open scientific project,” Delp said. “The best way to advance science is by making our insights, data, models and software available to the scientific community, and to the world at large. We’re here to use science in the service of society.”

Like Delp, Joy Ku M.S. ’98 Ph.D ’04 sees the Alliance as a body for collaboration. Ku has spent decades building communities for different research centers in biomedicine, and she now serves as the Alliance’s lead for education and outreach. She believes that Alliance’s innovation projects focus directly on facilitating cooperation between athletes and researchers.

“I think we are just at the beginning of this very exciting endeavor, and I would encourage everyone, whether you’re a clinician or a student-athlete, to see how you can engage with us,” Ku said.

Stanford Athletics and the University’s orthopedics and bioengineering departments are all involved in the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance. Other institutions, including the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the University of California San Diego, the University of Oregon, the University of Kansas and the Boston Children’s Hospital, affiliated with Harvard Medical School, are also part of the Alliance.

The Alliance plans to incorporate educational programs into their work, including symposia, conferences and publications, in an effort to reach out to researchers, undergraduates and athletes.

“We’re about improving health for everyone, not just for athletes; we’re all really trying to perform at our peak — physically, emotionally, mentally, whatever that is at the moment,” Delp said.

Delp is familiar with the challenges that accompany a project of this magnitude, but is ultimately optimistic for the future.

“So it is a grand scale, but why not go for it?” Delp concluded.

This article has been updated to reflect accurate associations and titles. The Daily regrets this error.

Anoushka is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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