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New MSU lab focuses on the study of human movement

Monday Jul. 9th, 2018

Inside a Montana State University laboratory on the south end of campus, a student lies prone on a table and flexes her calf. Her muscle activity appears as a burst of blue lines on a screen across the room, and her movement is captured via cameras mounted on the wall and thimble-sized sensors placed on her body.

The data transmits to a computer and, along with other information collected, allows researchers in the laboratory to analyze the motion. The information could be helpful in studies seeking to understand more about the mechanics of human motion, as well as in developing a rehabilitation plan for an injured person.  

The new laboratory – called the MSU Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab – is headed by Jim Becker, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Development in the College of Education, Health and Human Development, and Scott Monfort, assistant professor in the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. Biomechanics is the science that is concerned with analyzing how and why bodies move in the way that they do.

Becker said the laboratory will enable a new kind of research at MSU.

“This modern, state-of-the-art biomechanics facility opens a lot of doors for things that couldn’t be done on this campus previously,” Becker said.

The facility, located on South Seventh Avenue near Bobcat Stadium, features several different types of equipment for gathering data, including four in-ground force plates that measure force when an individual steps or jumps on the plate, as well as a large treadmill with its own built-in force plates used for analysis of walking and running. Surrounding both the plates and treadmill are motion-capture camera systems that are used to record an individual’s movements.

The researchers plan to conduct studies related to a range of movements, including walking, squatting, running, changing direction and daily activies such as obstacle crossing or sitting-to-standing movements, Monfort said. He added that sports injuries – as well as screening services for local athletic teams – will be another focus.

Monfort, who earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering at Ohio State University, came to MSU in fall 2017. At Ohio State, his research involved understanding how neurological factors influence the way people move. That work ranged from examining impaired balance and walking in cancer patients to musculoskeletal injuries in high-performing athletes.

“That background will provide a nice base here, and we’ll be collecting new data that continue to investigate these relationships,” he said.

Becker’s doctorate, from the University of Oregon, is in human physiology, with a focus in biomechanics. His research focused on sports medicine, particularly for runners and track and field athletes. The work included assessments of who is at risk of injury, how to prevent injuries and how to effectively treat injuries.  In addition to injury prevention and rehabilitation Becker also used these same research tools to help athletes improve their performance.

“Those are a lot of the same questions we intend to pursue here,” Becker said.

More than a dozen undergraduate and graduate students will work with Becker and Monfort in the lab, Monfort said.

“This is an exciting opportunity for (students),” he said. “The students come in with different backgrounds but are all motivated by research questions.”

Dan Miller, head of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, praised the researchers and called the lab an exciting addition to MSU.

“The leadership and vision that Drs. Monfort and Becker are providing is outstanding and a model of cross-college collaboration enabling an exciting research area,” he said.   

“Becker’s and Monfort’s collaboration demonstrates that when we work across disciplines, departments and colleges, we can create unique teaching and learning experiences for both health and human performance students and engineering students, while engaging local health care providers in practical scholarship that is of service to their patients and the professional community,” said Alison Harmon, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Development.   

The researchers have also teamed up with a local physical therapist, Laura Opstedal with Bridger Orthopedic, who helps connect the researchers with clients who would benefit from additional information. In turn, the clients provide useful data for Monfort’s and Becker’s studies.

“Some (research) questions are associated with a certain (condition), so it’s critical to be able to bring in patients and assess them,” Monfort said.

Opstedal said she is “thrilled” to be part of a research collaboration with MSU.

“The opportunity for a clinician to work with researchers is vital for the advancement in medicine,” she said. “Clinicians often have unanswered clinical questions but lack resources to research ideas or fill gaps in medical literature. To be able to work closely with researchers and share ideas is beneficial for students, the university as well as the medical community.”

Becker said he and Monfort hope to develop collaborations with additional local physical therapists.

“Any clinic that is interested and would like to develop a research partnership is invited to refer patients here,” he said, adding that such collaborations are common at most larger research hospitals. “Given the active population we have here in Bozeman, this would be a great resource and a great fit.”