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Meet Your Executive – Marco Vaz, Affiliate Societies Liaison Officer

Posted on July 19, 2010

The first time I heard the word Biomechanics was during my BSc in Physical Education at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. We had a course called Kinesiology and Biomechanics on the fourth semester that was taught by Prof. Antônio Carlos Stringhini Guimarães. “Tony”, as he was known by his friends, did his MSc in biomechanics of swimming under the supervision of James Hay in Iowa, and for some reason Iowa was the first link connecting us. In 1981, during my first high school year, I went to Iowa for a six-month exchange program. Although I did not meet Tony then, I lived in Slater, a small town near the Capital Des Moines, and I had a chance to pass nearby Iowa City.

 Antônio Carlos Stringhini Guimarães.

After taking this course with Tony I decided that I wanted to work with him at the Exercise Research Laboratory. Tony was starting a new project related to the electromyographic activity of abdominal muscles, and I started as a research assistant in this project. The interesting thing about this first experience was that the only equipment we had to collect EMG signals was a pen and ink physiograph, which means that most of the high frequency components of the signals (and actually most of the signals), were filtered out due to the mechanical pen used to register the signals on paper.

The second learning experience I had was when Tony put me in charge of getting papers through the library. After filling out several forms for each paper we had to wait between 15 days and 6 months for the papers to arrive. Sometimes I tell my students that they do not really know how blessed they are for having the internet and being able to download papers with a few clicks of the mouse, as well as creating graphs and analyzing data with fantastic technology and great speed.

The third thing that I learnt with Tony was that technology should not be the focus of a research project, as good science can be done without fancy equipment. Coming from an Economically Developing Country (EDC - sometimes referred to as the 3rd world), facing limits is something that you have to learn really young. Although a lot of people have some restrictions with the term EDC, I think that it reveals the reality that some countries face in research due to the economical situation. Things have improved now and I think that Brazil is now in the 2nd world. Hopefully one of these days we will reach the 1st.

After finishing my BSc I decided that I wanted to have a graduate experience abroad. As Tony was doing his PhD in Calgary with Prof. Walter Herzog, with Tony’s help and Walter’s acceptance I was able to get funding from CAPES, one of the Brazilian Governement agencies that supports Graduate Programs in Brazil and Brazilians abroad.

I started my PhD with Walter in 1992, and the main focus of my dissertation was trying to understand the mechanisms of muscle vibrations during contraction. During my PhD I was exposed to various equipment and new techniques (mechanomyography, isokinetic dynamometer, artificial electrical stimulation, surface EMG and signal processing) and it was an exciting and unique experience, as none of this existed in our lab in Brazil, where Exercise Physiology was the only area that had some equipment for research. Despite this exposition to new technology, what I most enjoyed during the PhD program was the opportunity to learn several things in the area of muscle mechanics and muscle physiology both on animal and human models.

In addition to science, we sometimes were allowed to enjoy life, with supervision. The picture below shows what I mean by that. See if you can find two of our ISB Presidents in the picture. This was taken immediately after the Jasper-Banff Relay, an Ekiden Race that used to take place between the cities of Jasper and Banff in Alberta. If I remember correctly each team needed to have 16 runners and the team had the goal of finishing the race in less than 24 hours. Although I was not a fantastic runner, I enjoyed the two times I participated in the race with the HPL team from UofC. The last time was special, as two days before the race I did not sleep for about 60 hours in order to hand in my dissertation. My loop had a very light uphill (about 6 km) and a steep downhill (about 10 km). I do not need to say that I was kind of rolling down the hill in this particular day, and my time did not help the team, despite my effort of 110%.

Jasper-Banff Relay.

After the PhD I returned to Brazil in 1996 and tried to apply some of the knowledge gained towards getting funding to start research projects. Things had improved substantially in our lab, as Tony returned to Brazil after his PhD in 1993 and was successful, together with two other professors, in getting funding for a new lab and new equipment. Therefore, the Exercise Research Laboratory became part of a network of Sports Excellency Centres, aimed at conducting tests with Brazilian high performance athletes. Although I worked a few more years with mechanomyography and muscle vibrations in humans, I changed gears to work towards understanding neuromuscular plasticity. Understanding how muscles adapt in high performance athletes was the main goal, as this would give me the necessary knowledge to help coaches and athletes to improve performance and minimize muscle fatigue and musculoskeletal injuries.

During this period I was also involved in organizing our Brazilian Society of Biomechanics, and Tony and I decided to organize the 9th Brazilian Congress of Biomechanics. We were able to have in Brazil three ISB presidents, Kit Vaughan (ISB President then), Walter and Ton. The congress took place in Gramado, a small tourist city of our Rio Grande do Sul “mountains” built by German immigrants. Although I tried to show a little of Brazil to Walter, I remember he mentioning that he felt as if he was in Europe. After showing Gramado to these three guys, on our way back to the hotel our van broke, and I had one of the most fantastic experiences of my life listening to these three giants of Biomechanics talking about science, life and biomechanics as the sun was going down by the road. For some reason sometimes these small moments seem to mark our lives.

Ton and Walter at Gramado during the 9th Brazilian Congress of Biomechanics (2001).

In 2003 I returned to Calgary for a one year sabbatical to learn as much as possible about other skeletal tissues besides muscles. As Walter was working for more than a decade in the area of osteoarthritis (OA), I had a unique possibility of learning several things about this degenerative disease. We worked in the development of a long-term model of muscle inhibition, as muscle inhibition was one of the main symptoms of elderly patients with knee OA. During this year I worked with David Longino, a bright orthopedic surgeon that had just finished his MSc with Walter and looked at the acute effects of botulinum toxin type A in the quadriceps of rabbits. The idea of using this toxin to determine muscle inhibition allowed us to look at a possible relation between the long-term effects of muscle inhibition as a possible mechanism to explain the initiation and progression of OA. We also looked at the effects of this model on the other skeletal tissues. One of the striking things we observed in these experiments was how the skeletal muscle tissue was somehow replaced by fat tissue, and how these effects were muscle dependant.

Vastus lateralis muscle after being exposed to 6 months BTX-A treatment (left) and the contra-lateral control vastus lateralis (right).

Aside from the scientific part, I was able to do something that I was unable to do during my PhD. I was able this time to visit the Canadian Rockies both during winter and summer. Almost every summer weekend I went hiking with some friends of the HPL or some Brazilian friends. I was also able to hike the West Coast Trail, another exhilarating experience over 8 days of walking in Vancouver Island.

Hiking in the Canadian Rockies. View of trans-Canada highway from the top of Hearts Mountain.

In 2004 I returned to Brazil and in 2005 I was successful in approving a grant proposal that allowed me to start my small Neuromuscular Plasticity lab. Today the emphasis of my research is towards understanding how the neuromuscular system adapts to different models of increased and reduced use in humans. Some of the areas include muscle inhibition and OA, muscle fatigue, muscle injury and eccentric exercise. We are also starting new projects in the clinical area trying to understand how muscles adapt to spasticity and rheumatic diseases.

The most important experience in my academic life was related to meeting people. It is fantastic how people that touch our lives are able to change so many things both in our personal and academic or professional life. I already mentioned a little bit of how Tony had a huge impact in my life, and his death in 2005 was a difficult learning experience. But Tony gave me the unique experience of meeting so many people, from new friends to great scientists.

One of these persons that impacted my life as if he had a magic wand was Walter. His example, his fairness, his sense of justice, his ethical actions, his simplicity and his open heart are some of the qualities beyond his brilliant mind that make me admire him and want to walk besides him on this journey of life. I have learnt so many things with him and I hope I can learn so many more.

Over the five years that I lived in Calgary I had this fantastic opportunity of meeting so many people and new friends. There I met Darren as we started the PhD program almost at the same time. I also met Ton van den Bogert, as he was doing post-doctoral work with Prof. Benno Nigg while I was doing my PhD. Brian MacIntosh, Tim Koh, Aaron Tubman, Tina Gabriele, Jos de Koning, Christoph Reinschmidt, Evelyn Hasler, Gordon Hamilton, Todd Allinger, Boris Prilutsky, Juliana Gal, Karin Gerritsen, Gerald Cole, Yuanting Zhang, Dilson Rassier, Joanne Archambault, Esther Suter, Sang Kuy Han, Motoshi Kaya, Tim Butterfield, Ali Oskouei, Salvatore Federico, Hae Dong Lee, Rachid Ait-Haddou are some of the friends made over the years.

Research is not done without the help of a good crew. Tim Leonard, Andrzej Stano, Hoa Nguyen, Holly Hanna, Annette Logan, Colleen Robertson, Veronica Fischer, Byron Tory, Glenda McNeil, Azim Jinha, Ursula Heinz (to name a few) were fantastic people that helped me in so many ways while in Canada.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all these people (and some others that I might have forgotten) that had an impact in my personal and academic life. I would also like to thank some friends from Brazil (Alberto Reppold, Ricardo Petersen, Newton Fortuna to name a few) and all my students for the lifetime experiences we shared.

Finally, I would like to thank all ISB members that gave me this fantastic opportunity of being part of the Executive Council. This has been a fantastic experience and an important opportunity for the growth of Biomechanics in Brazil and Latin America. To the new friends in the Executive Council, I am looking forward to seeing you in Singapore.

Marco Aurélio Vaz
ISB Affiliate Societies Liaison Officer

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