Chasing the Six Million Dollar Man

When Steve Piazza was a kid, he was fascinated by “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The ’70s TV show followed an astronaut who, after a crash, was given bionic limbs and a bionic eye. For Piazza, the show did more than just entertain — it captured his imagination and set the stage for the rest of his life.

Forty years later, Piazza is a kinesiology professor making his dream of blending mechanics and the human body a reality through the Biomechanics Lab at Penn State.

Since 1967, the Biomechanics Lab has been a place for researchers in a variety of fields to study the inner workings of the human body. The lab was one of the first of its kind in the United States, and it played a pivotal role in the formation of the International Society of Biomechanics.

Today, the lab is a hub of technology, which, according to Piazza, is necessary to accurately study what’s going on inside the body.

“I can’t think of many things we study that don’t require the use of technology,” Piazza said. “Sometimes we will take a picture of a foot in order to get the dimensions, or maybe use a ruler, but that’s about the lowest tech thing we do.”

The lab is housed in what once was the bowling alley at Rec Hall, and the former 30-meter-long lanes make the perfect runways to test how individuals move. Thanks to adhesive pieces of plastic and reflective tape called “markers,” eight high-speed cameras can capture the exact movements of a subject’s body, which can then be processed and analyzed on a computer.

In a recent experiment run by a Ph.D. candidate, markers were placed at various points on a participant’s bare skin to capture his running, walking and jumping motions. As the subject ran from one end of the lane to the other, a nearby computer showed a colorful stick figure in real-time completing each action.

“What we’re interested in is: What is the function of a particular muscle? How is it helping the body to move? And that means we need to understand what the forces are that can be produced by a muscle,” Piazza said. “But we can’t measure those things directly, so we have to come up with creative ways of answering those questions.”

Piazza also uses such technology as computer modeling to simulate movements. These simulations can then be used to test the function of orthopedic implants, for example, and they’re a cheaper and faster alternative to testing human subjects.

“We made measurements of some older people performing different activities like walking, climbing stairs, picking up keys, turning or getting out of a chair,” Piazza said. “When the company sponsoring the research has a new hip design, they can run it through all those motions. It’s almost like virtually testing their implant on 10 differently shaped hip replacement candidates.”

Recently, Piazza used his knowledge of prosthetics to help local elementary school student Daniel Quinn achieve his dreams of playing the cello despite suffering from symbrachydactyly — meaning he was born without fingers on his right hand. Thanks to the technology at the Biomechanics Lab, Piazza and his students created functioning prosthetics that allow Quinn to play the cello more efficiently.

Enhancing the lives of real people is a common theme in the Biomechanics Lab, to which Jinger Gottschall is no stranger. Gottschall, an associate professor of kinesiology, focuses on demographics like pregnant women, the elderly and others who need additional stability when moving.

Through use of force plates and surface electromyography (testing the electrical activity of muscles), Gottschall can monitor how these individuals change their gait to safely transition between level ground, stairs and ramps.

“You can imagine there are multiple populations that need to be a little bit more cautious when they change from level ground to a stair or from going downhill to a level ground,” Gottschall said. “We’re trying to figure out what goes on so we can make recommendations for various populations when they have difficulty with these transitions.”

Gottschall also relies on the dual-belt treadmill, which she helped create. By having a subject’s feet on separate belts, researchers can adjust individual belt speeds to account for limps, as well as monitor how each foot is working on its own.

For one of Gottschall’s research graduate students, Stephen Fincham, the Biomechanics Lab has been a place to apply what he’s learned throughout his academic career at Penn State.

“Jinger actually got me into biomechanics,” Fincham said. “She has a certain passion for her field and for people and it’s contagious. After I took her class, I ended up working in her lab all the way through the end of my undergraduate work and even after undergraduate.”

Fincham graduated from Penn State in 2011 with a degree in kinesiology and is now a Ph.D. candidate. Through his work at the Biomechanics Lab, Fincham has been able to study what he loves most about kinesiology: people.

“I’m fascinated by people in general,” Fincham said. “We are so unique and diverse, and there’s still many things that we don’t know. I want to be a part of finding out more.”

And the Biomechanics Lab is the perfect place to do just that. The technology in the lab is helping these researchers study the human body in imaginative and innovative ways.

And although Piazza hasn’t yet created a bionic leg like the one Steve Austin used in “The Six Million Dollar Man,” the lab is home to a machine — created by current Vice President for Research Neil Sharkey  —  that can simulate life-like walking movements in a cadaver foot using a series of cables and actuators.

“You can use a device like this to determine if the foot bones are experiencing stresses that might cause a fracture,” Piazza said. “Or you can understand the functions of foot and ankle muscles better by examining how they lengthen and shorten during walking.”

For Piazza, the Biomechanics Lab is not only an interdisciplinary center to advance the study of kinesiology, it’s a place for him to keep the dream of “The Six Million Dollar Man” alive. As the narrator in the show’s intro so accurately put it: “We have the technology.”

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