UNO biomechanics program is more than doubling its space under a ‘visionary’ leader
University of Nebraska at Omaha biomechanics boss Nick Stergiou returned to campus after commencement ceremonies this month and watched the three-story addition to his Biomechanics Research Building taking shape.
Stergiou took smartphone pictures of the construction from his car at an intersection between Elmwood Park and UNO.
From virtually no biomechanics program 20 years ago to a booming enterprise that will occupy two buildings as of next fall, Stergiou and his staff have carried biomechanics beyond any expectations. The department and its facilities stand at the intersection of ambition and financial backing. The biomechanics program wouldn’t have flourished without both.
“There’s no place in the world like their biomechanics facility,” Randolph Nudo, a professor of rehabilitation medicine at the KU Medical Center in Kansas, said of the UNO complex. The collection of scientists, students and biomechanics work areas and research space make it unique, he said.
Nudo said Stergiou has a rare ability to distill complex biomechanics into understandable concepts.
“He’s a visionary, and he’s been steadfast in building this entity” at UNO. Nudo said he reviewed one of Stergiou’s grant proposals 20 years ago and was “just astounded. I said, ‘This is a winner, right here,’ ” Nudo recalled.
Biomechanics is generally the study of the effect of external forces on organisms, and especially the capabilities and limitations of human movement under conditions such as age or disease. The field can include a huge range of topics, from balance in elderly people to movement delays in infants. Biomechanics can blend biology, physics, math, chemistry and other disciplines.
Stergiou, 53, attributes his program’s success to effort. The growth “happened because we work immensely hard. Immensely hard,” Stergiou said. He recalled sleeping in his office some nights when he was getting his program started.
Sara Myers, assistant vice chancellor for research and creative activity at UNO, said that early on, Stergiou would encourage groups of potential donors, students, scientists, community members and university brass (“Anybody that was interested in biomechanics,” Stergiou said) to tour the little area biomechanics had in the Health, Physical Education and Recreation building.
Myers, who has been a biomechanics team member for 15 years, said the small group of staffers would dress in their “Johnny Cash uniforms” — black slacks, black lab shirts and black shoes — and show their biomechanics projects to the tour groups. There were dozens and perhaps hundreds of tours, she said, over a couple of years.
With the aid of government grants, the biomechanics program now has 11 full-time faculty members and more coming next fall, Stergiou said, plus many staffers and students. Biomechanics received the biggest research grant in UNO history four years ago, a $10.1 million federal Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence grant over five years. Stergiou hopes to renew that grant to receive $10.9 million.
The first Biomechanics Research Building, erected five years ago with $6 million, now has about 80 people in it, including faculty members, staffers, graduate students and research-inclined undergrads.
That $6 million, 20,000-square-foot building, largely created with money from Omaha donors Ruth and Bill Scott, is packed with people, projects and devices. The addition, with the Scotts as lead donors, will cost $11.6 million and will provide 30,000 square feet of space.
Ruth Scott said through an email that she and her husband listened to Stergiou and “decided to gamble on his enthusiasm.” Scott, 88, said the goal is to “make a difference in the lives of Nebraskans and others.”
Stergiou, who came to the United States from Greece 29 years ago to earn his graduate degrees, called the Scotts “my American parents.”
“The fact that we are in this building is really a miracle,” he said of the Scotts’ support. He called himself a “crazy Greek” who is “in the job of proving people wrong.” Stergiou, head of the Biomechanics Research Building, joined UNO’s faculty in 1996.
Some people will move from the crowded initial building into the addition. The two facilities together should comfortably accommodate about 145 people, said Jeff Kaipust, assistant director for biomechanics.
UNO biomechanics was named UNeMed’s Innovator of the Year this fall. UNeMed is the technology transfer and commercialization office for UNO and the NU medical center. The biomechanics program also received approval to grant master’s degrees this year. Drew Dudley, of Norfolk, earned UNO’s first such degree this month.
Dudley, who worked with scientist Jorge Zuniga, said he at first was unaware what a rare place he had landed in.
“I didn’t realize the type of facilities and resources at this department,” Dudley said. “We have a lot of successful faculty here, a lot of hardworking faculty.”
The faculty and graduate students have about 80 research projects going, Kaipust said. Projects have included a wearable device to warn a patient of a coming COPD crisis, virtual reality systems to study posture and movement, 3D-printed prosthetic hands, assistive devices for stroke patients and a study of foot temperature and diabetic ulcers.
Research money from government and private sources keeps rising — 21 percent over the past two years to $3.41 million. Stergiou and his team aim to receive $7.95 million in 2022.
Myers described Stergiou as “demanding and intense.” He wants people to work hard and to learn from errors, she said. He also “would do anything to help his students or faculty,” she said.
Nudo said biomechanics includes work that can lead to better therapy for stroke patients, traumatic brain injury and many other patients and conditions. And UNO, he said, is doing some fine projects.
“Every time I go there,” Nudo said, “it’s yet another milestone.”