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‘Accidental scientist’ honoured with prestigious Muybridge Award

UCalgary’s Walter Herzog reflects on his career path and his latest accolade

Sparked by childhood dreams, Walter Herzog wanted to race for Switzerland at the Olympics. However, his running ability — good but never great — dashed those hopes, so the young man began to contemplate life as a gym teacher. Then another possibility came to mind. By marrying athletics and teaching, perhaps he could coach at the national level — or even higher.

“Halfway through my graduate studies … we were actually responsible for preparing (American) long-jumpers and triple-jumpers for the 1984 Olympics,” Herzog says of his doctorate days at the University of Iowa. “The most famous were Jackie Joyner and Carl Lewis. I was working with high-performance athletes, filming them and analyzing them. We brought them to the lab. We talked to them.

“It was exactly what I wanted.” At least, that’s what Herzog thought — until something dawned on him. It wasn’t the track stars that captivated him. It was the problem-solving. “How can you jump the farthest? How do you do that? How do you optimize that?” says Herzog. “I started to realize, ‘Oh my god. I think I’m becoming a scientist.’ ”

A researcher was born.

Now in his 60s, still whippet-thin, he’s a standout in his field — a world-renowned pioneer in biomechanics, a ground-breaker in muscle-contraction study. He’s a gentleman who, forgoing UCLA’s offer 32 years ago, has made his permanent home the University of Calgary.

He harbours no regrets. Indeed, Herzog gets a kick out of his path to prominence. From the International Society of Biomechanics (ISB), he recently received the prestigious Muybridge Award for career achievement. In a professional life crammed with recognition, including being named a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, this was something else.

“The biggest scientific award I’ve ever won,” says Herzog, director of Calgary’s Human Performance Lab and professor in kinesiology, engineering, medicine, and veterinary medicine. “In the guidelines for the award, it says it’s not only for excellence in research and science, but it’s also for contributions to the profession. I thought that was particularly meaningful.”

At the ISB awards conference in Brisbane, Australia in July, he delivered a lecture tellingly entitled: “Reflections on Muscle — or the Accidental Scientist.” This, of course, is a light-hearted nod to his unassuming entry into the realm of research.

“I came into it really unplanned … fairly serendipitously,” says Herzog, who, the son of a carpenter, grew up in a farming village near Zurich. “I never really had a master plan. I just always followed my interests. Somehow that magically led me down the path.”

It’s a  path that has proven to be highly beneficial to the biomechanics community. Proudly, Herzog talks about his work and its practical applications to obesity, osteoarthritis, and injury recovery. “I’m definitely not in the profession to win awards,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed being an academic scientist. I love what I’m doing.”

The ISB’s next get-together is scheduled for 2019 in Calgary, but Herzog won’t soon forget the last one. At the Brisbane conference, he received rock-star treatment, deservedly so. “I was famous for a week,” Herzog says, chuckling. “A lot of people wanted photographs and selfies. It’s quite a strange thing because, as a scientist, you’re not really used to that.

“Particularly, it was a lot of students who came up to me. I must have been photographed 100 or 150 times. It was fun.”

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