Gwendolyn Sowa, MD, PhD
Chair of PM&R

Gwendolyn Sowa, MD, PhD is a tenured professor and chair of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and director of UPMC Rehabilitation Institute. She is co-director of the Ferguson Laboratory for Orthopaedic and Spine Research at the University of Pittsburgh, and holds joint appointments in the Departments of Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering at the university.

Dr. Sowa has won national and international recognition for her research in deciphering the biology of intervertebral disc degeneration (IDD) and the subsequent development of biological and biomechanical therapies. She receives funding to support her research from many sources including the NIH/NIAMS, NIDRR, North American Spine Society, Physiatric Association of Spine, Sports and Occupational Rehabilitation, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and the American Geriatrics Society.

Specialized Areas of Interest
Low back pain, mechanobiology of the intervertebral disc, molecular biomarkers of low back pain.


Board Certifications
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

Education & Training
BS, Chemistry, Cum Laude, Lafayette University, 1993
PhD, Biochemistry, University of Wisconsin, 1997
MD, University of Wisconsin, 2000
PM&R Residency, Northwestern Medical School, 2004

Honors and Awards
Best Doctor, Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, Pittsburgh Magazine, 2016
PASSOR Legacy Award, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPM&R), 2014
Best Musculoskeletal Medicine Research Poster Presentation Award,AAPM&R; 2012
Outstanding Paper Award in Basic Science, North American Spine Society, 2012
International Society for the Study of the Lumbar Spine Biology Prize Award, 2012
President’s Citation Award, AAPM&R, 2010
Outstanding Scientific Paper Presentation, Association of Academic Physiatrists, 2010
Young Investigator Award Winner, OABiomarker Global Initiative, 2009
Young Academician Award, Association of Academic Physiatrists (AAP), 2009
Excellence in Research Writing Award, AAP 2008
Electrode Store Best Paper Presentation Award, AAP, 2005

Research Activities
Using her background in biochemistry, Dr. Sowa currently performs molecular laboratory based, translational, and clinical research, investigating the effect of motion on inflammatory pathways and the beneficial effects of exercise. The Ferguson Laboratory, which she directs, is a 3000 square foot laboratory fully equipped to perform molecular assays including gene expression analysis, protein analysis, cell and organ culture, histology, and cellular and spinal biomechanical testing. Dr. Sowa also has an active research program investigating the role of serum biomarkers in guiding individualized treatment in intervertebral disc degeneration and back pain.

Dr. Sowa has authored and co-authored over 60 original research publications, 35 book chapters and reviews and over 200 national presentations related to research. She is actively involved in training future clinician scientists by mentoring students at all levels and sponsoring visiting research scholars from around the world.

Professional Organization Membership
American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
American Geriatrics Society
Association of Academic Physiatrists, Board of Trustees
International Society for the Study of the Lumbar Spine
North American Spine Society

Selected Publications
1. The effects of glucosamine sulfate on intervertebral disc annulus fibrosus cells in vitro. Sowa GA, Coelho JP, Jacobs LJ, Komperda K, Sherry N, Vo NV, Preuss HG, Balk JL, Kang JD. Spine J. 2015 Jun 1;15(6):1339-46. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2013.11.058. Epub 2013 Dec 18. PMID: 24361347

2. The importance of basic science and research training for the next generation of physicians and physician scientists. DeFranco DB, Sowa G. Mol Endocrinol. 2014 Dec;28(12):1919-21. doi: 10.1210/me.2014-1343. No abstract available. PMID: 25437019

3. Associations between serum biomarkers and pain and pain-related function in older adults with low back pain: a pilot study. Sowa GA, Perera S, Bechara B, Agarwal V, Boardman J, Huang W, Camacho-Soto A, Vo N, Kang J, Weiner D. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2014 Nov;62(11):2047-55. doi: 10.1111/jgs.13102. Epub 2014 Nov 3. PMID: 25367206

4. Identification of distinct monocyte phenotypes and correlation with circulating cytokine profiles in acute response to spinal cord injury: a pilot study. Huang W, Vodovotz Y, Kusturiss MB, Barclay D, Greenwald K, Boninger ML, Coen PM, Brienza D, Sowa G. PM R. 2014 Apr;6(4):332-41. doi: 10.1016/j.pmrj.2013.10.006. Epub 2013 Oct 17.PMID: 24140737

Dr. Gwen Sowa's publications on PubMed

UPMC OnTopic Discussions
A comprehensive approach to treating low back pain.
Gwen Sowa, MD, discusses how physicians in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation evaluate patients with low back pain, including their multidisciplinary treatment approach aimed at helping patients regain function and improve their quality of life.