Nick Stergiou and his colleagues have turned a field of study called biomechanics into a churning research machine at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
They've acquired grants, purchased devices and built their own technology to study falls, strokes, arterial disease, surgical performance and other phenomena. They'll be rewarded for their productivity this month when they move into a new, $6 million biomechanics research building at UNO.
Stergiou and his crew will highlight their success by hosting up to 700 biomechanics scientists, physicians and others from around the country Sept. 4 through 7 for the annual American Society of Biomechanics meeting, much of which will take place at the CenturyLink Center. The official ribbon-cutting for UNO's biomechanics research facility will take place during that conference, on Sept. 5.
The 23,000-square-foot building will give the biomechanics researchers almost three times the space they currently have in UNO's Health, Physical Education and Recreation Building.
“As you can see, we're expanding, expanding, expanding,” Stergiou said. “We've outgrown our place.”
The lab focuses largely on the mechanics of movement, particularly walking and balance problems for people with various afflictions and challenges, such as the elderly and people who have had strokes. They use virtual reality systems, infrared cameras, computer data collection, special treadmills, robotic gadgets and other devices to record, measure and improve performance. They work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on balance problems astronauts face when they return to Earth. And they've brought a National Football League kicker, former Husker Alex Henery, to their lab to analyze his technique.
The primary donation for the new building came from Ruth and Bill Scott, who have contributed heavily to the University of Nebraska Medical Center over the past several years. Ruth Scott said she heard Stergiou, 47, speak at an NU Foundation gathering in California 2½ years ago.
His words and deeds “almost ooze passion” for biomechanics, Ruth Scott said. “He's a dynamo, that's what he is.”
Stergiou, Mukul Mukherjee, Sara Myers and others in the biomechanics lab have generated close to $15 million in research money from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the American Heart Association, NASA and other groups.
Biomechanics is the study of the mechanics of biological processes and blends anatomy, biology, physics, mathematics and engineering. It's a comparatively new discipline. The American Society of Biomechanics was formed in 1977.
Years ago, Stergiou, who grew up in Greece, had a special interest in running shoes and athletic shoes. He came to UNO to get a master's degree because faculty member Kris Berg had written a paper related to the topic.
From UNO, Stergiou moved on to the University of Oregon, where his interests broadened to motor control, mathematics and other disciplines. He earned a doctorate in biomechanics at Oregon, and he joined UNO's faculty in 1996. He also has a faculty appointment at UNMC.
When he came to UNO as a faculty member, biomechanics research was confined to one room at the HPER Building, he said. Stergiou's research took off. And with the hirings of researchers such as Myers, a former UNO basketball player, and Mukherjee, a scientist raised in New Delhi, biomechanics research gobbled classroom and office space on the second floor of the HPER facility.
They converted the faculty lounge into lab space, Stergiou said. They have about 20 research projects going now.
They are working with NASA to investigate whether insoles fitted with vibrating devices help astronauts regain their sense of balance after long space flights. They have developed a gadget that uses heel and toe sensors to distinguish problems in an elderly or afflicted person's stride, and thus measure the risk of falling.
Using infrared cameras, they study how arterial disease in the legs affects walking and what treatment options are most beneficial. They have created robotic devices to test and improve stroke patients' arm use.
They use split-track treadmills to study the movements of stroke patients, examining data conveyed to a computer that show how hard the patient is striking the ground, where he's hitting the ground and what part of the leg is causing the problem. They have done walking assessments on amputees to help patients determine which prosthesis is best for them.
UNO biomechanics researchers have collaborated on projects with scientists and physicians from UNMC, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. From UNL, graduate student Chase Pfeifer and engineering faculty member Jeff Hawks brought former Husker and current Philadelphia Eagles kicker Henery to the lab to study his leg speed, technique and the precision with which he strikes the ball.
Creighton physical therapy faculty member Deborah Givens is working with the lab to refine her device, which measures the back reflexes in patients with lower back pain to test, among other things, the effectiveness of physical therapy.
Simulation at the lab has helped UNMC surgeons practice their precision in robotic surgery and laparoscopic surgery.
The new building, which will be attached to the HPER facility by a third-floor walkway, will include various lab areas, changing rooms for research subjects and patients, meeting rooms, faculty offices, a machine shop for making and tweaking devices, and other features.
It will be UNO's first building dedicated to research and will house “a lean, mean research machine,” Stergiou said.
“How fast we're going to outgrow that, I don't know.”