If you ask Nicholas Stergiou to talk about himself, he’ll probably find a way to make it about UNO, its faculty or, more often than not, its students.
Stergiou is director of the HPER Biomechanics Laboratory and a UNO professor entering his 11th year at the university. But his relationship with UNO dates back to 1989 when he left his home city of Thessaloniki, Greece, to study for his master’s degree in exercise science.
“There was one professor here that did a study, which I had just happened to find, and so I read that someone in Omaha knew about insoles,” Stergiou said. “That was Dr. Burke. Chris Burke.”
Burke’s study was a rare find for Stergiou, who did his undergraduate thesis on how sports shoes prevent injuries. The study was also rare because it was the only study Burke ever did involving shoes.
“I said, well, they are experts over there at UNO,” Stergiou explained with a laugh. “When I came here I realized I couldn’t do a lot of things about shoe research, but I could still get a solid foundation in biomechanics.”
After graduation, Stergiou’s interest in shoes led him to a biomechanics Ph.D. program at the University of Oregon, which he called the “Mecca of running.”
“[It’s] where the legends run,” he explained. “Sure enough, I was right in the middle of it.”
After Stergiou completed his doctorate he returned to Greece. He joined the military while looking for jobs in the civilian world, but found none.
However, he soon got word of a job offer at UNO from Daniel Blanke, director of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, whom Stergiou had worked under during his time at UNO. He applied, got the job and never looked back.
“When I came back I really fell for the place,” Stergiou said. “The reason I like Omaha so much is because we are like a small-town mentality, but in a big town. I love that.”
Over the past 11 years, Stergiou has used his expertise in the field of biomechanics to solve clinical problems, particularly in infants and the elderly.
“I felt like, OK, sports shoes are great, they can prevent sports injuries,” he said. “But there are some really serious problems out there, so I figured I better use my talents towards those problems,”
Stergiou’s areas of research are vast, ranging from training surgeons to use robots to operate, finding treatments for peripheral arterial disease, determining the proper ways babies should sit and how diseases like cerebral palsy might affect their motor skills development.
“[Sitting] is so important because then the baby can sit upright and start exploring the environment, reach, see what’s going on,” he said. “We can see how a baby with developmental disabilities is sitting, and then provide them treatments in order for us to get them to sit. Then maybe they can stand better or walk better.”
The research, which is aided by fellow researchers at the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, is funded both by a five-year grant from the National Center of Medical Rehabilitation and a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Stergiou was quick to proclaim that it is “the only research of its kind on the planet.”
But his proclamation was followed by praise for UNO graduate students who help with the research.
“Here at UNO, we have the best kids, in my opinion,” he said. “Because our kids work full-time jobs and at the same time they go to school, usually. That’s spectacular.”
Stergiou’s students also help him with a niche service that has garnered him the name “the shoe guy.” As part of a way to raise funds for graduate students to visit conferences, Stergiou began offering to measure a person’s biomechanical movement to determine what their perfect shoe selection would be.
“We collect a lot of different data, dynamically and statically,” he said. “Then we send you home a report that details not only what types of shoes you should wear, with a list of different shoes, we also give you a stretching routine, some strength training advice and stuff like that.”
Over the 10 years Stergiou has run the service, it has reached more than 1,500 people, some as far away as Alaska. While he is happy with the success of the program, his work with shoes is increasingly becoming a distant memory.
“In comparison to what I’m doing now [it’s] like night and day,” Stergiou said. “I mean, I’m proud for what I did as a doctoral student, certainly, but what I’m doing now, it has so much more impact.”
Stergiou’s loftiest dream, if he could have his way, would be to make UNO world-renowned for its research capabilities.
“Personally, I love UNO. If you opened my heart you’d find UNO in there,” Stergiou said with a smile. “And I want every single one of our students to be proud of UNO.”
Stergiou is currently looking for children to particpate in his research. Those interested in helping must have a child less than one year old and can call the Monroe-Meyer Institute at 559-6415.