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Nicholas Stergiou
Nicholas Stergiou in the biomechanics laboratory at UNO. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Nicholas Stergiou: Research in Motion

by Teresa Gleason

December 2004

They used to call him "the shoe guy."

Nicholas Stergiou smiles when he talks about the past, momentarily closing his eyes behind wire-framed lenses as if to mentally focus on the story he's about to tell.

His lab on the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) campus is an ocean away from Thessaloniki, Greece, where he first unearthed his love for math and physics.  "I was a big-time nerd at 12," Dr. Stergiou said, his English reflecting a youth spent in the sunny northern section of the ancient country.  "It wasn't until a little later on that I learned there were other fun things in life, like girls and sports."

Instead of clashing with his scientific interests, Dr. Stergiou's introduction to athletics fueled his desire to merge the two seemingly disparate arenas.  "I began looking for a niche where I could study both, which led to biomechanics," he said.  "I was fascinated by the fact that you could use math and physics to improve shoes and shoe selection."

Enter the shoe guy.

Dr. Stergiou earned his B.S. in physical education from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he wrote his bachelor's thesis on sports shoes.  The next step - a graduate degree from a U.S. university.  "If you want to learn from the best, you go to America," he said.

The young Greek applied to UNO after reading a journal article written by Kris Berg, a professor in the UNO School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.  "I came from a very poor family, so the only way I could go to graduate school was to go somewhere that would provide me with a graduate assistantship," he said.

Following some initial wariness, Daniel Blanke was willing to oblige.  Dr. Blanke serves as director of the UNO School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER).  "After talking with him for 10 minutes, I remember being impressed with the fact that Nick knew what he wanted to do and that he wanted to grow as an individual," he said.  "I decided to take a chance, and it's the best decision on a graduate assistantship I ever made."

While pursuing his master's degree in exercise science, Dr. Stergiou worked in HPER's biomechanics laboratory, which Dr. Blanke established in 1980 to develop a new understanding of the dynamical aspects of human movement.  When it came time to pick a graduate school, he turned to Nike country and the Mecca of running - the University of Oregon, where he obtained his Ph.D. in biomechanics.

This is where the shoe guy's academic path takes an unusual detour in order to comply with Greek law.  Because he was a Greek male, he was required to return to Greece and serve in the army for one year.

In the midst of marching, maneuvers and minding his superior officers, Dr. Stergiou managed to land a faculty appointment in the United States at his alma mater.  "Dan Blanke called me and said there was a faculty position open in the biomechanics lab," Dr. Stergiou said.  "We did the job interview over the phone because I was still in the army.  I didn't want to move back to Omaha because of the snow, but I met and worked with so many good people while I was there the first time that I decided to give it a try."

He joined the UNO faculty in 1996 and settled into his teaching role in the UNO School of HPER - an academic unit of the UNO College of Education.  "I always want to do the best I can do, so I focused on becoming the best teacher I could be while pursuing my research interests on the side," he said.

Slowly, his research focus began to shift, from shoes and shoe selection to motion itself - the variation in how people stand, walk and physically interact with their environments.

"I started to look at clinical applications for the study of variability in human movement - it's what makes me feel good inside as a person, knowing that my research has the potential to help people," he said.

Dr. Blanke describes his colleague's intellectual capacity as 'almost overwhelming.'  "Nick's ability to manage multiple projects successfully is incredible, and he's always looking for his next project," Dr. Blanke said.  "I can say with confidence that one day he will produce something revolutionary."

Today, the UNO biomechanics lab, which Dr. Stergiou directs, is a collaborative enterprise involving engineers, scientists and clinicians who use techniques from biology, engineering and math to decipher the complexity of the neuromuscular system and how it controls human movement.

To the untrained eye, the lab itself looks like a converted gymnasium, a place more suitable for push-ups or a game of hoops than cutting-edge research. 

Its director, however, is quick to point out its state-of-the-art technology, bounding around the lab with the enthusiasm of a proud parent who can't wait to tell you about witnessing his child's first steps.  The lab features a three-dimensional digital video capture system, a Kistler force platform that is used to acquire kinetic data, and electromyography, which measures muscle response to nervous stimulation.

John Christensen, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at UNO, characterizes Dr. Stergiou's work as leading edge research from a national perspective.  "I believe it will result in the development of valuable diagnostic and prognostic tools related to chronic movement disorders.  The bridge he is establishing between basic research findings and clinical utility has significant remedial and management implications."

On Dec. 1, Dr. Stergiou's lab and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Munroe Meyer Institute began work on a three-year, $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the dynamics of development of sitting postural control in infants with cerebral palsy.  The goal of the project is to develop treatments for infants with motor disabilities.

The ability of babies to sit in an upright position usually occurs at five or six months of development, Dr. Stergiou said.  "Children enter the world with variable movement, which becomes more stable over time," he said.  "They reach milestones and then progress to others in a sequential order - sitting, standing, walking."

In children with cerebral palsy and other motor disorders, the ability to sit in an upright position is delayed.  For example, what normally occurs at six months of age may not occur until 12 months.  Dr. Stergiou's theory - what would happen if you quantified and analyzed this movement process and then gave children who were struggling an early intervention that set them back on the right path?

"Identifying the delay, determining the nature of the problem, and evaluating the effectiveness of treatment quickly are vital in the early part of an infant's life, since this is the time of greatest plasticity," he said.

The U.S. Department of Education grant is the latest in a series of funded research projects involving Dr. Stergiou's lab and collaborators from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln:

- A four-year, $433,966 project funded in August by the Nebraska Research Initiative will allow Dr. Stergiou and his research team to develop a device to help orthopedic surgeons monitor patients.

- Dr. Stergiou is also a co-principal investigator on another four-year, $1,185,852 project funded in August by the Nebraska Research Initiative involving the development of a virtual reality training simulator.

Due to its increased research activity, the biomechanics lab is growing in terms of both staff and space.  Dr. Stergiou is quick to share the credit for this growth with individuals in the UNO College of Education, the UNO Department of Psychology and the UNO Department of Mathematics. 

He's also insistent that the efforts of his staff, including doctoral student Max Kurz, are critical to the lab's forward momentum.  Kurz was awarded one of eight University of Nebraska Presidential Fellowships in 2003-04.  Among his many accomplishments and honors, Kurz has established a collaborative relationship with NASA's Johnson Space Center with the hope of fostering future external funding for the lab.

As for the shoe guy himself, there's always that next course to plot.  "As my mother would tell you, I have a hard time saying no," he said.

For more information about the HPER biomechanics lab at UNO, contact Dr. Stergiou at 402.554.2670 or nstergiou@mail.unomaha.edu.

Teresa Gleason is director of communications at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She can be reached at tmgleason@mail.unomaha.edu.

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