The Influence of Penn State's Biomechanics Program

image of man running

Through the study of biomechanics, researchers are seeing movement in new ways, and Penn State was one of the first places where the scientific discipline took form.

The history of biomechanics as a concept dates back centuries to innovators like Aristotle, Galileo, and Leonardo Da Vinci, who applied mathematical and mechanical principles to movement. However, very little research was performed until the twentieth century. As research developed, biomechanists began to see the world in a new light: as a series of forces, fulcrums, levers, and equations interacting with each other. The human body was transformed into a group of values that could be quantified as points on a graph, and this new way of perceiving movement greatly expanded how precisely it could be measured, objectively, and thought about, philosophically. The Biomechanics Lab at Penn State was one of the first labs where this transformation picked up speed.

Dr. Richard “Dick” Nelson first established Penn State’s Biomechanics Lab in 1967 in the building on the University Park campus known as the “Water Tower,” which was later renamed the Biomechanics Teaching Lab. There, a number of groundbreaking activities took place that would eventually shape the field of biomechanics into what it is today.

The early leaders—Nelson, Dr. Dewey Morehouse, and Dr. Peter Cavanagh—continually sought out ways to apply biomechanics knowledge to develop solutions to problems in musculoskeletal health, sport, exercise, injury, and rehabilitation. A few examples include: the International Society of Biomechanics was founded at Penn State in 1973, Nelson helped implement biomechanical analysis at the Olympics via the International Olympic Committee’s Medical Commission as a way to help athletes prevent injuries, and Cavanagh developed a treadmill that is used by NASA on the International Space Station.

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Perhaps more important than the research that came out of the lab are the concepts that Nelson, Morehouse, and Cavanagh taught students, other faculty, and visiting scholars— concepts that would eventually strengthen teaching and research at other institutions.

“Dick Nelson never let you forget that you had to start with a good question, then choose a specific piece of instrumentation to answer to answer that question—that was the key to science,” says Dr. Robert Gregor ’76g PH ED, professor emeritus of applied physiology at Georgia Tech. Many other alumni vouch for the importance of this lesson and many others taught by faculty in the lab. The importance of humor in teaching, for example, was something Dr. Ray Burdett ’79g PH ED took away from the lab.

Many alumni say they graduated not only with degrees, but with heightened self-confidence in their own research, imparted to them by faculty. Ryan Landon ’06g M E, development engineer for Smith & Nephew Orthopaedics, says that he learned “the need to question everything—especially the obvious. Validate your assumptions. More importantly, I learned how important it was to be a sounding board for people’s ideas. There should always be forums where people can go to work through their ideas no matter how abstract they may seem.”

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For the work these early leaders completed in the lab and for the contributions they made that helped grow the study of biomechanics, Penn State recognized its own Biomechanics Lab through the installment of a historical marker, which was unveiled August 27, 2009. “The markers commemorate events and locations of broad importance to the intellectual development and heritage of Penn State as one of America’s leading public universities,” said Dr. Graham Spanier, President of Penn State, in his remarks at the unveiling ceremony. “The people, stories, and events depicted on the markers are remarkable.”

Nelson, Morehouse, and Cavanagh had a generosity and enthusiasm for sharing knowledge with others, which is one of the many reasons Penn State’s Biomechanics Lab has garnered so much fame in the field. Not only did they teach students at Penn State, but they promoted the development and growth of biomechanics at other institutions, which allowed for more people to study the discipline and for the discipline to grow at an exponential rate. One example of this involves Dr. Robert Norman ’77g PH ED.

Norman pursued his Ph.D. in the area of biomechanics at Penn State primarily to work with Nelson, who he says was a “warm, accepting, helpful” mentor. They became closely acquainted during this period, and when Norman left Penn State to set up an undergraduate biomechanics lab at the University of Waterloo, he wasn’t shy about asking Nelson for help. Nelson’s response to Norman was to “loan out” an electronics technician at Penn State, Ken Petak, to help purchase electronic equipment and interview and hire a technical staff at Waterloo.

Richard Nelson unveils the marker

Dr. Richard Nelson unveiling the biomechanics historical marker.

Norman, now a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, recalls what an enormous help this was: “This allowed us to leave the equipment and software issues with experts of the likes of Ken Petak and get on with what we knew best: designing experiments, doing research, and teaching.” Nelson, Morehouse, and Cavanagh also created a network of scientists that continues to exist today. The lab remains a place where faculty from a number of disciplines—mechanical engineering, industrial engineering, psychology, and physiology, and others— convene. “This network allows a natural tie between faculty and researchers from across the world, and often makes it easy to strike up a conversation—and may lead to research collaborations between people who may otherwise never even meet,” says Dr. Rhonda Boros ’02g KINES, assistant professor of health, exercise, and sport sciences at Texas Tech University.

image of the marker

There are a number of dedicated biomechanists in the lab today, each specializing in a different aspect of movement or a different part of the body. This clustering is rare among biomechanics programs and gives a “variety of perspectives on biomechanics from a number of high-quality faculty” for students and other faculty to draw upon, says Daniel Gales, doctoral candidate in the biomechanics program. Gales studies how movement impacts the human heel pad, which is one of many focuses of the lab. Other researchers in the lab are addressing issues such as how standing, sitting, and posture change in old age; how orthopaedic surgeries such as joint replacements affect movement; and how strokes impact the ability to control movement.

Several cutting-edge pieces of equipment help further research in the lab today: ultrasound devices, a cadaver lab that allows for invasive analysis that would be impossible to perform on living subjects, motion analysis systems, devices for measuring the forces applied by the fingertips, an innovative dual-belt force treadmill that allows each belt to be controlled independently (to simulate limping or uneven terrain), and others. However, it is the belief of many researchers in the lab today, just as it was in the past, that machinery itself cannot produce high-quality research. “What researchers bring to the equipment—in terms of theories, experimental strategies and an array of well-thought-out questions—is typically far more important than the equipment itself,” says Dr. Karl Newell, professor and head of the Department of Kinesiology and Marie Underhill Noll Chair in Human Performance.

A philosophy like that, which formed the basis of the lab from its beginning, will help ensure that the lab continues to contribute in a multitude of ways to advancing the study of human movement.

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Editors: For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.