Featured Researcher — Motao (Matt) Zhu, MS, MD, PhD

Featured Researcher — Motao (Matt) Zhu, MS, MD, PhD 150 150 Katie Brind'Amour, PhD, MS, CHES

Motao (Matt) Zhu, MS, MD, PhD, serves as a principal investigator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. After starting off his epidemiology studies in reproductive health, Dr. Zhu transitioned into injury research and has since become an internationally recognized expert in young driver safety. He currently leads four grants, two of which are R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens aged 16 to 19, with nearly 2,400 deaths and more than 250,000 treated in emergency departments due to motor vehicle crashes in 2019 alone.

Dr. Zhu’s research aims to advance scientific knowledge so that policymakers, injury prevention professionals and families can work to reduce traffic injuries and deaths. Dr. Zhu has also expanded his interests to the field of opioid use disorder (OUD), which represents a major public health burden in the United States and Ohio. OUD accounted for nearly 75% of the 92,000 drug overdose-related deaths nationally in 2020, and was declared as a public health emergency by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in 2017 and again in 2022. Dr. Zhu’s growing portfolio of novel OUD research draws on survey, app and data analysis skills developed over more than two decades of traffic-related research and aims to help clinicians to better identify, manage and treat patients with opioid use disorders.

Read on to learn more about Dr. Zhu and his work.

How/why did you decide to pursue a career in your field?

For my masters, I studied reproductive epidemiology, looking at maternal birthplace and major congenital malformations among New York Hispanics. After graduating, I accepted a position as a research scientist at the Bureau of Injury Prevention, for the New York State Department of Health. Instead of focusing on reproductive health, I directed the Crash Outcome Data Evaluation System (CODES) project and published data comparing belted and unbelted backseat passengers on a number of crash-related health and financial outcomes. I really enjoyed that process, and ended up publishing on the association of rear seat safety belt use with death in a traffic crash as well as urban and rural variation in walking patterns and pedestrian crashes. I really began to enjoy injury research because it can have direct impacts on practices and policies. It can save lives.

I started studying part-time for my doctoral degree in epidemiology while I worked at the Department of Health, and wanted to focus on injury epidemiology. Unfortunately, there was no mentor available for me, so I went back to my prior interest in reproductive epidemiology. After completing my degree, however, I had three published papers in traffic injuries and 6 years of full-time experience in that field—and almost none in reproductive epidemiology—and I was offered an assistant professor position at the Injury Control Research Center, West Virginia University (WVU). Like our Center for Injury Research and Policy, the WVU injury center was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it was an excellent place to continue my academic journey in injury epidemiology.

Why did you decide to pursue your work at Nationwide Children’s?

I was recruited by Gary Smith, MD, DrPH, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy (CIRP) at Nationwide Children’s. He has such great vision and leadership for injury research.

Our center is one of only nine injury control research centers nationally funded by the CDC. My CIRP colleagues work locally and globally to reduce injury-related pediatric death and disability, and our transitional researchers are pioneers in bringing cutting-edge injury research into education, policy, programs and clinical care. At Nationwide Children’s, I know I am fully supported by Dr. Smith and institute leadership, and I truly enjoy collaborations with my fellow investigators within our center and AWRI.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is to analyze the data and identify the best model to explain it. Data can often be presented with different conclusions. I enjoy analyzing data using an array of approaches, including descriptive analyses, graphs, and simple and complex modeling to uncover the most accurate risk factor-outcome associations. I work to uncover the truth rather than manipulate the data.

I also enjoy writing research papers to summarize our findings and discuss the findings within the context of previous research and implications for policy or education. I cite my colleagues’ work and see if our research adds confirmatory findings or changes things up.

How does your research serve our patients and our community?

Fun Facts About Dr. Zhu

What’s your favorite word?

Perseverance. Great things come out of perseverance. An article may only be accepted after several tries. And with grants, if you’re not willing to persevere and resubmit, you don’t get awards!

What do you usually eat for breakfast?

Hot milk. For me, nothing is more filling and refreshing than hot milk in the morning.

What’s your favorite food?

Cherries. I just like the taste.

Favorite way to relax?

I play tennis once or twice a week and have done so for about 20 years.

Favorite thing you’ve bought this year?

I bought a headlight for camping. I use it to walk my dog when it’s dark and to cut the grass when it’s getting dark.

My research addresses the leading cause of death and disability among children and adolescents in the United States and globally.

In a CDC-funded project, we work with our internal Research Information Solutions and Innovation (RISI) team and external partners to develop an app called Behind The Wheel. This app is for teens who have just received their learner’s permits to practice driving. It tracks driving practices and provides individualized driving feedback with gamification concepts such as safety badges, a score leader board, weekly summaries and education materials. The app also has a parent/guardian version to allow them to practice driving with their teens. We are conducting a randomized, controlled trial to determine the ability of our app to impact driving safety after six months. If our results are positive, our app could be used by guardians and teens in our community, across Ohio and throughout the country.

In a NIH-funded R01, we examine the impacts of young-driver cellphone laws and all-driver cellphone laws on teen texting behaviors, traffic injuries and deaths. We recently published an article demonstrating that hands-free cellphone laws were associated with fewer driver deaths than less comprehensive laws. Hands-free laws save lives and reduce the societal costs associated with distracted driving. Our findings have direct policy implications for the nearly 30 states (including Ohio) without hands-free laws to enact such policy. I personally testified in 2021 for an Ohio house bill to implement a hands-free law. Our findings have been reported by over 240 TV stations as well as Forbes. In another publication, we analyzed the Youth Risk Behavior Survey data from 35 states. We found that nearly 40% of teen drivers age 14 years and older had texted while driving at least once in the month prior to the survey, despite the fact that 34 of 35 states in the study ban text messaging for drivers 21 years and younger. When our hospital published a related press release, we specifically added a section to educate parents/guardians on ways to limit their teen’s texting while driving. Our article was featured by the CDC on their website and reported by Yahoo!, Forbes, and Reuters, with an estimated audience of more than 400 million people.

Now we are leading another NIH-funded R01 randomized trial of 1,200 young drivers to determine whether automated “driving mode” features on cellphones (which block incoming texts and calls while driving) effectively reduce cellphone use and related crashes. Our study will help determine whether this common cellphone feature can curb distracted driving, and could provide a public health and safety action item for the injury prevention community and policymakers.

What’s next? 

In a state-funded grant, we are collaborating with pediatricians at our hospital’s Medication Adherence and Treatment Assistance clinic and physicians at The Ohio State University Medical Center to use Fitbit, ecological momentary assessments, and passive in-home monitoring technology to track daily schedule and routines among patients with OUD. This type of rich data could help clinicians to better manage and treat patients, identify variations from daily routines to quickly spot relapse or even intervene earlier to prevent relapse. I also have two doctoral students doing studies on opioid misuse and treatment in teens, because I believe we can make a lot of headway in OUD management once we have the right information.

About the author

Katherine (Katie) Brind’Amour is a freelance medical and health science writer based in Pennsylvania. She has written about nearly every therapeutic area for patients, doctors and the general public. Dr. Brind’Amour specializes in health literacy and patient education. She completed her BS and MS degrees in Biology at Arizona State University and her PhD in Health Services Management and Policy at The Ohio State University. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist and is interested in health promotion via health programs and the communication of medical information.