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Instead of watching summer blockbusters at the movie theater, Mateen Poonawala‘07 (Karachi, Pakistan) worked with a technology that makes some of their special effects possible.

Using state-of-the-art equipment funded by a $213,610 National Science Foundation grant, Poonawala analyzed how muscles work together to create force and movement in humans. Such technology, which includes a laboratory designed to gauge movement, cameras to record it, and computer programs to translate the movements into tangible measurements, was used to help create the computer-animated Lord of the Rings character Smeagol, says Poonawala, who is pursuing a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering and an A.B. in economics & business.

He conducted the research as an EXCEL Scholar with Steven Nesbit, associate professor and head of mechanical engineering. In Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars Program, students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Not only can this technology be used to enhance television and movies, the thrust of Nesbit’s research focuses on improving the performance of athletes.

“We [used] Newton’s Laws to look inside the athlete’s body,” Nesbit says. “We can see how they move, but don’t know exactly what forces are going on inside these bodies that are causing these sorts of motions and how they’re coordinated.”

“Because so many people do their own things, the best techniques evolve that way,” he adds. “We want to get a better understanding of what that means.”

When it’s understood how motions are created, modifications could be made to athletes’ equipment or their method of play, which would enhance their performance, says Nesbit, whose research in biomechanics has included working with the U.S. Golf Association and studying movements in tennis.

In Poonawala’s case, cricket, which he plays at Lafayette and in his home country, was the sport of choice.

To that end, he had to recruit cricket players to record in the lab, use a series of computer programs to re-create their motions, and use his knowledge of biomechanics to figure out what’s actually happening in the body.

“It’s very different from the classroom experience,” Poonawala says. “First, it’s all very experimental, so there’s an extensive use of computers, which makes the more tedious stuff very easy. And it’s very different from textbook experience as well because I actually [learned] about something that’s applied in the industry. What you learn in class is more factual knowledge, but this is something that’s applied in the industry.”

It also gave him a crash course in biology as he had to learn the bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are involved in motion, says Poonawala, whose interests include robotics and automation.

Nesbit notes that Poonwala contributed to a cutting-edge field that has practical applications, and the student agrees.

“It’s interesting because it’s something that has not been done before at Lafayette,” he says. “A lot of research projects at Lafayette have been going on for many years, but this lab was only set up in January–everything I [did was] pretty new, and the only resource I [had was] my professor.”

Poonawala serves as public relations representative for the student chapter of the American Society of American Engineers and student representative for the Admissions Office, is on the editorial board of the Marquis literary magazine, and competes in intramural Scrabble and ping-pong. He also is a member of Student Government, cricket club, International Student Association, and the staff of the school newspaper.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News