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Marquis Scholar Michael Elzinga ’07 (Saint Paul, Minn.) is not a runner, but he knows more about the way sprinters move than perhaps the athletes themselves.

Elzinga, who is seeking B.S. degrees in mechanical engineering and physics, has analyzed the biomechanics of elite sprinters with the hope of designing exercise equipment that will exercise these athletes in the most optimal way.

He’s conducting the research through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a 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.

Led by Steve Nesbit, associate professor and head of mechanical engineering, Elzinga’s multi-faceted research has involved recording the movements of sprinters with special cameras that create computer-simulated models. They are working in a bioengineering laboratory funded in part by a $213,610 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Through reflective markers affixed to specific parts of the body, such as the hip and knee, knee and ankle, or ankle and foot, the six cameras in the lab are able to record the specific movements between the two points.

“Let’s say you have someone running and the marker is on the knee, ankle, toe, or wherever. If two cameras can see the same markers, then the computer creates a three-dimensional projection of where the markers are,” Elzinga says. “So if you get two cameras seeing the same reflective ball, they can figure out where in space that reflective ball is.”

Eventually, the cameras will have recorded enough to create a complete picture of a runner’s movements – from the lift of the knees to the sway of the shoulders – and Elzinga will be able to manipulate the program so he can simulate the movements exactly as they happen in real life.

Nesbit says this computer-generated motion representation is not only a recreation of a runner’s movements, but also a measurement of other dynamic elements, such as force and torque.

“Once we get all these to work, the possibilities of study are endless,” Elzinga says. “We could try to find the path the foot moves in and then find out the kinds of forces that the leg and foot go through by running so we can better create that sort of energy for exercise equipment.”

The exercise equipment would not only work the muscle groups identified by the biomechanics programs, but would cause the athlete to move in optimal ways, Nesbit says.

“The idea is not only to exercise the muscle, but to come up with exercise equipment that trains for proper technique and makes the most out of the forces that are used,” he explains.

In the same way that Elzinga’s biomechanical engineering project is innovative, it is also difficult.

“It’s challenging because nobody here has done exactly what I’m doing, so I’m trying to make it up as I go along,” he says. “Professor Nesbit has a pretty good idea of the best way to do things, but ultimately the best way to learn the material is on your own. Sometimes, after you’ve spent four to five hours on the same problem and [the solution] works, that’s pretty exciting.”

Nesbit says he is always available if Elzinga gets stuck, but by in large he has not required help.

“He’s the number one student in his mechanical engineering class, out of about 50 mechanical engineering students,” Nesbit explains. “He’s incredibly gifted in his intelligence, he’s got a great work ethic, and he has a very unusual capacity to work on his own. He’s very much a self-starter and very motivated. He just figures things out – he’s as good as any student I’ve ever had.”

Elzinga enjoys the freedom and responsibility he’s been given.

“It’s amazing. I asked to do some EXCEL research and they gave me this project and basically said, ‘Here you go, you can work with this $300,000 system and we’re trusting you with that.’ I like that kind of trust and responsibility,” he says.

Nesbit says there was never a question in his mind that Elzinga could handle this.

“He’s learned to manage his own tasks and to figure things out on his own,” Nesbit says. “He’s just an excellent problem solver and all those things are just good, basic things to know for really any job – they’re good capabilities to have.”

Elzinga is most excited that the skills he’s acquiring will serve him well beyond campus bounds.

“Just going through the whole design project, you’re collecting data, figuring out how things work from that, designing something to fit the data, and basically [preparing] to invent something in the industry,” he says. “For my career I want to do design engineering and eventually own my own design business. I definitely think this is a good step.”

Elzinga is a member of the Experience Lafayette Committee and participates in intramural sports. He was a member of the crew team.

Chosen from among Lafayette’s most promising applicants, Marquis Scholars like Elzinga receive special financial aid and distinctive educational experiences and benefits, including a three-week, Lafayette-funded study-abroad course during January’s interim session between semesters. Marquis Scholars also participate in cultural activities in major cities and on campus, and mentoring programs with Lafayette faculty.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Thirty-nine students were accepted to present their research at this year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News