The Best in Biomechanics
A new Ph.D. and world-class facility being built in your backyard
21st February 2012
When Nate Hunt began working as a barista at the Criss Library café at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he was looking for his next move after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq in the army to wrap up an undergraduate degree in physics.
He had no idea he would get to stay at UNO, receive a full-time scholarship and get paid an additional stipend to work in one of the best internationally regarded biomechanics programs in the world.
How did this opportunity arise? All over a cup of coffee.
Always a big reader, Nate continued to read journals and books ranging from biomechanics to artificial intelligence while working at UNO's library cafe. He also began researching for graduate schools with programs in biomechanics, but he couldn't find a program that was broad enough to completely encompass his interests and allow him to play to his strengths.
"I couldn't find everything I wanted in a single program, which was kind of disheartening," Nate said. "I would get excited about a program, but when I went back to look at it a couple days later I wouldn't be as excited as I was when I first saw it. I was trying to find something I could get really passionate about, because I figured if I was going to grad school and it's going to take so much time, I better be really into it."
However, it was Nate's job at the UNO café that ended up determining his future. Each week, Nate served eight drinks to a customer who would always ask for his receipt. Curious, Nate struck up a conversation and discovered the customer was none other than Dr. Nicholas Stergiou, director of the UNO Nebraska Biomechanics Core Facility (NBCF) lab.
Dr. Stergiou told Nate that the drinks he ordered were for graduate students from the NBCF lab who gathered each week to discuss research articles. Seeing Nate's interest, Dr. Stergiou invited him to join the group, visit the NBCF lab in HPER and talk to a few students.
Nate took Dr. Stergiou up on his offer to visit the lab, and hasn't looked back. He volunteered for work right away, working as an undergraduate researcher and then later as a graduate research assistant when he decided to pursue his master's degree at UNO.
"It's almost like serendipity hit Nate's door in this situation," Dr. Stergiou said. "My advice to students, just in general, is to keep your ears and your eyes open for opportunities. Don't reject anything. Try to observe everything. Be open to explore, too look, to investigate, to emerge [yourself] in different opportunities."
And for students like Nate, the opportunities are truly limitless. NBCF, with Dr. Stergiou at its helm, is internationally regarded as one of the broadest and well-designed biomechanics programs in the world. Plans to expand the program for future students include a stand-alone building on the UNO campus for the NBCF research. The proposed two-story building plans set the location next to the stadium and behind the HPER building, with an anticipated completion date of fall 2013.
"We don't have any other completely dedicated to research buildings, so that will be the first," Dr. Stergiou said. "In addition to this, we'll be the first on the planet completely dedicated to research in biomechanics. That would be a huge step."
He hopes that private donors will continue to give grants and financial support to the NBCF to help students like Nate thrive, whether for short-term or long-term projects.
"We are trying to have a multi-disciplinary approach, and bringing people from computer science, engineering, mathematics, exercise science, biology, neuroscience, bioinformatics, etc.," Dr. Stergiou said. "By bringing people from all these areas, we can see problems from a lot of different perspectives."
Dr. Stergiou said he is constantly approached by people who are envious of the opportunities UNO's NBCF provides.
"We are actually considered as one of the best facilities in the world, and we get inquiries from all over the planet and from people who come here to work with us," Stergiou said. "We don't have anything to be jealous of with any university you can think of. We are better than Harvard and Yale and Berkeley and all those places."
Nate was drawn by the multiple and diverse techniques the NBCF incorporates to analyze chaos and fractal properties of gaits. Such work requires a great deal of modeling and creative thinking to consider and bring together various factors, such as human gait variability.
Nate said the ability to take such a wide approach rather than specializing is fun, and one of the biggest reasons has was initially drawn to working in the NBCF.
"I think one of the big problems that I had when I was looking at all these programs and I wasn't sure where I wanted to go was that many were very specific in answering narrow questions," Nate said. "I think that this lab, being as big as it is with this many people and with all the equipment, leads to kind of a broad approach in the types of experiments that we set up and perform."
When Nate first started researching, it took him a while to get used to the 50-60 hours most people work at the NBCF each week.
"I was intimidated at first, because I didn't know how well I could actually contribute to the lab," he said. "I was trying to demonstrate with every chance that I could that I could handle something a little more technical and get more responsibility."
It was tricky to juggle lab hours around his job, and he was relieved when he was able to quit the café and work at the lab full-time thanks to a NASA Nebraska Fellowship grant. NASA regularly awards grants to help fund the NBCF student work.
"It's great, because I get a tuition waiver and I also get a stipend that's enough to pay my rent and my groceries," Nate said. "I can focus completely on this research and working in the lab. It's nice not to have any distractions from, say, an outside job. I wake up and I come to the lab and I work here and I stay until the evening and then I go home and then I do it again. I feel pretty lucky with that."
After he caught up on research and writings that Dr. Stergiou recommended, Nate began tracking motion files and data collection for ongoing projects. Once such project involves cognitive testing for the elderly.
"[We were] putting markers on their bodies and doing cognitive tests while they're walking on the treadmill to see if there's different interference between cognitive tests and the walking test."
He slowly moved up to data analysis as he researched fractal analysis, algorithm parameters and data collection for a post-doctoral project. Now, in the last semester of his master's, Nate is writing his thesis paper and working on a lab book about nonlinear analysis.
Jeff Kaipust, a NBCF technician who completed his master's degree at UNO, has worked with Nate since his first day at the lab. Kaipust said that from the beginning, Nate displayed excitement, motivation and a desire to learn that exceeded expectations.
"Nate was different, because he asked why we were doing things a certain way, how we could do things another way," Kaipust said. "He would even go and do searches in the literature about how we could answer different questions that we were already look at. He's never just satisfied with 'This is the answer to the question.' He likes to dig and find out more and investigate everything."
Nate said his ambition he displays is facilitated by the NBCF faculty and the students who fuel his enthusiasm further. It was this passion that is driving him to complete his master's degree in May, explore getting his PhD and to consider teaching one day.
"Up here, it's so ambitious," he said. "Nick [Stergiou] is so ambitious, and I think that trickles down to everybody else's mindset, so you're kind of pushing the limit of what you can do. I think that is going to give the greatest advance in terms of advancing your skill set."
Dr. Stergiou has nothing but praise for Nate, citing his warm and polite demeanor, his diligent work ethic and his ability to think outside of the box as "truly exceptional" and "ridiculously smart."
He hopes that with the new doctorate degree program in Exercise Science at UNO, students like Nate can take their studies at the lab to the next level.
"Nate's working on some really incredible stuff right now that can actually tremendously benefit society. He sees from angles that the other students cannot see," Dr. Stergiou said. "He sees the biggest picture, the smallest picture, every picture. Conceptually, he is incredible. All of these qualities are important qualities when you pursue a graduate education."