The Touch Research Institute located at the University of Miami conducts research that includes the direct involvement of licensed massage therapists.

The Touch Research Institute performs research on how massage benefits premature babies, and massage therapy volunteers assist with its studies. Courtesy of Touch Research Institute.

The Touch Research Institute (TRI), located at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine in Miami, Florida, conducts research that includes the direct involvement of licensed massage therapists.

With no minimum or maximum hour requirement for volunteering, TRI presents a unique opportunity for Florida massage therapists, in particular, to learn about research while working with a varied patient population.

And with cuts to funding, volunteers are needed by TRI perhaps more than ever.

From Volunteer to Research Assistant

Nicole Sauvageau, LMT, is now employed by TRI as a massage therapist, but she started with this organization as a volunteer. At that time, she was working as a server in the food-and-beverage industry and wound up waiting on a woman who, in conversation, asked her how she was.

The Touch Research Institute located at the University of Miami conducts research that includes the direct involvement of licensed massage therapists.

Tiffany Field, PhD, created the Touch Research Institute in 1992. Courtesy of Touch Research Institute.

That’s when Sauvageau replied that she was currently in massage school, and soon learned that the customer she was speaking with was Tiffany Field, PhD, founder of TRI. In fact, Sauvageau says that it wasn’t too long after that interaction that she learned about Field’s work in one of her classes.

Ultimately, Sauvageau asked Field if TRI needed volunteers, and she learned that it did but was also warned that it was a longer process with “a lot of background checks and fingerprints.”

Sauvageau decided it was worth the effort and went through the process.

She passed and was brought on as a volunteer, where she donated her time and skills for a year and half before leaving for a paid position elsewhere. Then, when a position became open at TRI, she applied, and was hired.

TRI: Connecting Medicine and Massage

Established in 1992, TRI is an organization founded for the purpose of studying touch and how it applies to science and medicine.

TRI was created by Field with a start-up grant from Johnson & Johnson.

After that time, grants from other organizations—such as the National Institutes of Health, March of Dimes, Colgate-Palmolive, and Massage Envy—began helping with research-based expenses as well.

It was funding from a variety of sources that have enabled Field and her staff to conduct more than 100 studies to date, drawing in documentary teams from all over the world who are interested in sharing their work.

With a distinguished team of researchers representing some of the top universities in the nation—Duke, Harvard, and Maryland, to name a few— TRI has been successful at scientifically associating touch therapy with a number of physical benefits, some of which include:

  • Enhanced growth in preterm infants
  • Diminished pain from chronic conditions like fibromyalgia
  • Decreased autoimmune problems
  • Enhanced immune function related to HIV and cancer
  • Enhanced alertness and performance

Since its inception, TRI has studied how touch affects a multitude of conditions, says Field.

“Studies evolved from research opportunities and issues people are highly concerned with,” she says, and are “driven by problems at the time and what kind of funding levels are available.”

Currently TRI is performing studies on massage and how it benefits premature babies, military personnel with post traumatic stress disorder, and individuals with hip pain.

In addition to providing valuable research, Field states that TRI also offers two-day workshops once a month (except in August and December) to teach their research methods, gives hands-on experience, and provide 12 CEUs to attendees.

It also offers on-site table and chair massages. But decreased funding and increased restrictions is making it harder to continue to offer all of these services.

Decreased Funding and Increased Restrictions

“We have used volunteers mostly because they want the experience of working with clinical conditions or premature babies,” says Field, but a decrease in funding has also left its mark.

Field estimates that, in total, funding has dropped from 19 percent to just 4 percent. This has increased TRI’s reliance on volunteers, since there is less money to go around.

However, now there are more restrictions than ever on how you can use volunteers, she says, compounding this issue even more. “Nowadays to have a volunteer you have to demonstrate that you are giving more to the volunteer than they are giving to you,” says Field.

This makes it even harder to complete the studies, each of which lasts for approximately one year. Most have around 40 participants, says Field, each one receiving one massage per week for a month. However, the participants are brought into the study at different times, so they’re always at different stages in the process.

It is issues like this that are keeping Field and her team from doing the research they’d like. In fact, they want to start a study on the benefits touch therapy provides to kids with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but cannot do so “until we have enough manpower” says Field, which is where volunteers come in.


The Touch Research Institute located at the University of Miami conducts research that includes the direct involvement of licensed massage therapists.

Tiffany Field, PhD, performs massage therapy on a premature infant at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine in Miami, Florida. Courtesy of Touch Research Institute.

Volunteering at the Touch Research Institute is a “Unique Opportunity”

Sauvageau says that volunteering at TRI provides a rather unique opportunity, mainly because it’s in an academic setting versus being in a spa.

Plus, donating time at TRI exposes massage therapists to different types of clientele based on the studies being performed. One of her personal favorites is the premature babies.

“Anytime you go in a neonatal intensive care and you’re around these little people, you can’t leave there without a smile on your face,” says Sauvageau. She shares how each one has his or her own personality and massage preferences, though following protocol is key when it comes to providing research-based massage.

The massages provided in these settings also help calm the parents as well, says Sauvageau, providing an added benefit to the family unit as a whole.

“I let parents know that it’s like developing a language of touch,” she says. “As you calm the baby down, you’re calming down too because it’s slowing your breathing.”

Sauvageau says that she also receives a lot of satisfaction from working with the veterans. “One client is in a body brace,” she says, adding that another has nerve damage due to chemical warfare and the massages often calm them down. “They go through a lot when they come back,” says Sauvageau.

The Volunteering Process

Although TRI is in need of volunteers, both Field and Sauvageau admit that it is a very involved process, one that requires an in-depth providing of information and includes finger prints and background checks. Additionally, Even as a volunteer it is always recommended that you carry professional liability insurance. 

From start to finish, it takes up to three months to complete but, as far as the level of time commitment required after that, Field says that volunteers can work as little or as often as they’d like.

If they have three hours a week to commit, great. If they have 10, that is wonderful too. There is no maximum or minimum hour requirement.

Field says that many massage therapists like volunteering at TRI because it’s a good learning experience and they’re able to learn massage that is focused specifically on the condition being studied as exact techniques must be followed so they’re standardized across all participants.

Additionally, for those who enjoy the research process, Field says that volunteering at TRI enables them to “learn the research methods we’re using so they can maybe get money from a massage therapy foundation and get someone to collaborate with and do their own study.”

The Ultimate Goal: Turning Research Into Education

Though the research is the primary reason for the Institute, Field shares that “one of our missions is to get the research results in the hands of massage therapists so they can use them to educate their own clients and document the effects of massage on the conditions the clients present.”

That’s why TRI conducts so many studies focused on pain.

If you’re interested in learning more about these studies, or other studies in the touch therapy field, Field says that you can find a list of them on TRI’s website.

“It would be good if massage therapists can tell clients about studies or give them copies so they know that there is all kinds of scientific evidence of massage,” says Field. “It would help advance the field.”

If you live in the Miami area and you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, Field says you can email her directly by clicking the “Contact Us” link on the Institute’s site. Just imagine how you can help shape the future of massage research.


Christina DeBusk is a freelance writer dedicated to providing readers relevant, research-backed content related to health and wellness, personal development, safety, and small business ownership.