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Sometimes you have to take a fresh, creative approach to a problem in order to get results.

For Max Kurz, Ph.D., a 1994 Doane College biology graduate, those novel approaches have involved robots, penguins and even elephants.

When he's not teaching, he conducts research on movement disabilities.

His objective: to find new methods of therapy to help the elderly, people suffering from Parkinson's and other disabilities.

The Discovery Channel featured Kurz as he investigated penguins, more specifically, their awkward gait pattern.

Why penguins? Kurz explained that in other studies, his team has focused on how the human brain controls walking. What makes it stable or unstable?

Their findings revealed that foot placement, e.g. the length and width of a person's step, is a crucial component.

Humans are very consistent in controlling the length of their steps but not the width. They also found that it takes more brainpower to monitor width of step than it does length, which was the same as in laboratory robots. Conversely, in nature, the very awkward gait pattern of the penguin provides a highly consistent width pattern, begging the questions how and why.

With cooperation from Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas, Kurz's team used a special mat to digitally measure the length and width of the penguin's steps. Their findings were astonishing. Penguins have a more consistent step than even college-age humans.

It also revealed that penguins, which have one of the highest oxygen-use levels, recover or conserve a large amount of mechanical energy, which improves their efficiency. Their mechanical efficiency is better than any other terrestrial animal.

Kurz's team isn't to the bottom of it yet and the penguins are actually just a small part of the research.

"We took what we learned from the penguins and applied it to other research we have done in the laboratory," Kurz said. "We have built some robots and are hoping that all together our work will help provide some fall-prevention techniques for humans."

Kurz’ latest work is as an assistant professor
in the Motion Analysis Laboratory of the
Munroe-Meyer Institute for Genetics and Rehabilitation
at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where his research is helping children with balance disorders.

UNMC recruited Kurz to test a devise called the “BrainPort” within the realm of balance disorders. The technology provides the brain with external sensory input. For example, electrodes placed on the tongue send electrical impulses to the brain when the subject is off balance, which causes the tongue to tingle and the subject to adjust their stance.

Kurz had previously worked with NASA to develop a program using the device that would help astronauts regain their balance upon returning to earth from space missions.

He credits Doane with giving him the foundation to develop into the person he is today.

"At Doane, I was an average student but the intimate environment and faculty mentoring helped me to develop good study skills and desire more education. It was that groundwork that allowed me to become a great student in graduate school and through my doctoral program. I will always remember Doane for that."

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