Matt Bundle, a scientist who studies the biomechanics of human movement, recently moved his research operation to UM. He is shown here in the University’s Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism.
Researcher studies limits of 'the human machine'
By Jennifer Savage
Matthew Bundle studies the science of how people move. He researches the upper limits of human speed and how brains control our muscles. He studies the rates of human metabolism and why our muscles use the energy they do. He examines men, women, the fast and the slow, people with biological limbs and those without. He studies the tiny nuances of gait, the effect of calories and age on performance and how the skeleton, muscles and supporting organ systems conspire to limit the human machine.
“Biomechanics is about the function of our anatomy, the relationship between the structures in our bodies and how they work,” Bundle says. “I study how the physical laws of mechanics have influenced our biology and apply this understanding to things such as injuries or the movements we perform in everyday life.”
Bundle made international headlines in 2009 when he and colleague Peter Weyand split from the rest of a team that conducted scientific testing on Oscar Pistorius, a South African double-amputee sprinter, who was appealing his ban from Olympic competition. Bundle noted that even though they admired and were inspired by Pistorius’ performances using his artificial legs, the scientific evidence clearly indicated that his “lightweight, compliant” limbs gave him considerable advantage over runners with biological limbs.
“The question there was: Do lightweight, spring-like, carbon-fiber prosthesis work differently than biological limbs?” Bundle says. “With a few straightforward tests that we developed over the past dozen years, we evaluated the biomechanics of how these limbs move and compared that to people with intact limbs. Surprisingly, the carbon-fiber prosthesis had a substantial advantage.”
The Pistorius controversy may be heating up again as the man known as the “Blade Runner” makes a bid for the 2012 South African Olympic team. While Bundle is anxious to pursue many of the exciting scientific issues that are related to this project, he says, “The data comparing Mr. Pistorius’ prostheses to intact limbs is clear, and the question of whether they provide an advantage over biological limbs has been asked and answered.”
Luckily, Bundle has many other research interests.
Bundle is trim, fresh-faced, clear-eyed and excited about the practical application of the science of biomechanics. The only thing he may be more excited about is that this past summer he moved his studies to UM’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences. As a new assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance, no one is happier than Bundle that he and his team of two graduate students have come to Missoula to continue the work they started at the University of Wyoming, where he directed that university’s biomechanics laboratory.
“I’m thrilled to be here,” he says recently on the UM campus. “Everyone has been so welcoming.”
Bundle was comfortable and enthusiastic the day he was interviewed. He is, after all, returning to UM, an institution he loves and one where he earned his doctorate in 2005. At the same time he’s returning to Missoula, a town he says he, his wife and their daughter are proud to call home.
“I received great training at this university, and I am anxious to provide my students with the same kind of education and mentorship that I received here,” Bundle says. “I want my students to contribute to the long line of excellent researchers that have begun their careers at UM.”
In addition to teaching this fall, Bundle and his students will analyze recently collected data about head injuries in sporting events and prepare for the next wave of experiments, including one study focused on combat amputees in cooperation with staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The practical application of his findings interest Bundle. And these two studies represent what he calls “good application,” where his experimental observations and data can result in useful outcomes for members of the public.
“We typically have both a basic science and an applied interest in the experiments we pursue,” he says. “Through these tests we can affect public health outcomes. For example, our work with human speed can inform how a prosthesis should be designed in order to get people up to speed after an amputation. We also can evaluate the changes in balance that occur during sports injuries and possibly come up with an effective, on-site and immediate way to identify people who are at risk of serious impairment if they return to play.”
Experiments and the data analysis that go along with them will keep Bundle and his team busy as they settle in at UM, but possibly their most important task this fall is to turn a concrete shell of a basement into a high-tech laboratory, a place where all of their studies will culminate.
Standing in the basement of UM’s education college building in flip-flops the week before school started, Bundle was animated when he talked about the new biomechanics laboratory he feels fortunate to be creating. He talked of a specialized treadmill that can measure stride-to-stride variations and clinical deficiencies. He talked of a high-speed camera that slows down motion and documents micro-movements, allowing him to study the dynamic function of the leg. He points to the middle of the room where he plans to dig a hole in the concrete floor to accommodate a highly sensitive force plate that will measure how forcefully a person’s foot strikes the ground.
“We’ll have offices over here,” he points to a corner where several dozen old paint cans currently reside. “If you look down this hallway, there’s nearly 50 meters, so we’ll be able to use that space as a runway for our gait-related studies.”
Bundle says that the latest technology and equipment allows him to spend time developing algorithms and sophisticated measuring systems. And some of that equipment is not commercially available. As a result his team will likely build, modify and instrument some of the tools they need for the lab as well.
“In our line of work, the experiments dictate our equipment needs,” he says.
If you take a step back and look at Bundle in what will be his laboratory, you can see the collegiate track and field athlete he used to be and understand just a little more how he came to love the science he’s now known for.
As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Bundle became interested in how the body works because he wanted to become a better runner. He began studying comparative anatomy and physiology and also captained both the cross country and track and field teams at Harvard. He took a class taught by renowned physiologist C.R. Taylor, who studied the movement of animals all over the world. Bundle eventually worked in Taylor’s lab, admiring his discoveries and the applications of his work.
It was at Harvard’s Concord Field Station that he met UM biology Professor Ken Dial and decided to pursue graduate work in UM’s Flight Lab, studying muscle function in bird flight. As a Montana graduate student, he continued his study of human performance. After UM he accepted a post-doctoral position at Rice University and then made his way back West to Laramie, Wyo., and the university there.
Now back at UM, it’s time for the next chapter in his ongoing trek to unlock the secrets of human movement.
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New University researcher studies limits of 'the human machine.'