Oct. 21, 2015

Scientist 'ruthless' in his open approach to joint and muscle research

Newly reappointed Killam Memorial Chair Walter Herzog brings team methodology to research and teaching excellence
Killam Memorial Chair support has helped fuel Walter Herzog’s groundbreaking research into the science of muscle contraction.

Killam Memorial Chair support has helped fuel Walter Herzog’s research on muscle contraction.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“I don’t know how to make a rat fat.”

It’s a simple admission from Walter Herzog, the University of Calgary’s recently renewed Killam Memorial Chair and world-renowned biomechanics researcher, but it lies at the heart of complex studies he’s conducting on the relationship between osteoarthritis and body mass.

To help solve his fat rat problem, Herzog assembled a team of researchers — including nutritionists — who have the expertise he doesn’t. It’s a multidisciplinary approach that has proven exceptionally fruitful for discovery and teaching throughout Herzog’s decades-long research career, and yielded interesting and sometimes surprising results.

Herzog says the University of Calgary is better than other universities at breaking down silos and allowing people to work across disciplines. “Removing those barriers, for me, has meant that we can look at problems from different angles, and find solutions, and that’s so exciting.”

A valued mentor and professor in kinesiology, engineering, medicine, and veterinary medicine, Herzog has just been reappointed for a five-year term as the university’s Killam Memorial Chair. He is also the Canada Research Chair in Molecular and Cellular Biomechanics, director of the Human Performance Lab, and a thought leader for the university’s Engineering Solutions for Health research theme.

“The Killam Trust recognizes interdisciplinary excellence in research — which Walter Herzog exemplifies; we are fortunate to have him at the University of Calgary,” says Ed McCauley, vice-president (research). “Committed to finding better biomedical health options, he enthusiastically shares his time and knowledge with his students and colleagues, fostering an ideal environment for training, collaboration and research.”

The 2015 Killam Teaching and Research Award recipients, from left: Susan Graham, David Dick, Linda Marie Fedigan, Tannin Schmidt and  Gerald Zamponi.

From left: Susan Graham, David Dick, Linda Marie Fedigan, Tannin Schmidt and Gerald Zamponi.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Linking metabolic syndrome and osteoarthritis

Herzog’s primary areas of research interest are the molecular mechanisms of muscle contraction and joint biomechanics. The theory the osteoarthritis team is pursuing is that the low-grade, chronic inflammation associated with metabolic syndrome (high body mass, high body fat) is responsible for triggering osteoarthritis.

The osteoarthritis group includes University of Calgary nutrition scientist Raylene Reimer — who does know how to make rats fat and has 
concocted a high-fat high-sucrose diet to get the job done — as well as molecular biologist David Hart and clinician Dr. Preston Wiley, along with dozens of other researchers in Alberta and collaborators across North America and Europe.

They are the only only group in Canada studying metabolic disease in the context of osteoarthritis, and their primary goal is to identify non-surgical interventions that may prevent the onset of osteoarthritis or slow or reverse the rate of the disease.

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Cross-pollination leads to exciting results

Known for his enthusiasm and energy, Herzog says: “My problem is everything is exciting.” Which is especially impressive given that he has been at it for over three decades.

He’s still excited about teaching, even though the Killam Memorial Chair support over the past five years would have allowed him to step away from his teaching responsibilities.

“When I started teaching years ago, I sensed I wasn’t any more qualified than anyone else to explain these things to students,” Herzog says. “I feel that now I can truly offer something to students that is unique, and that makes teaching a lot of fun.”

Herzog is excited as well about the quality of students and postdoctoral scholars his laboratories attract, with close to 100 applications from around the world for about five positions a year.

And he’s excited about the opportunities the Killam Memorial Chair has afforded him: hiring biomechanics researcher Venus Joumaa, funding students’ attendance at conferences and exchanges, and inviting some of the world’s leading scientists to visit the University of Calgary.

Transformative research in muscle contraction mechanism

In addition to the advances in osteoarthritis research, the Killam Memorial Chair support and other funding has also fuelled Herzog’s groundbreaking research in the science of muscle contraction.

By mechanically isolating the basic unit of muscle tissue, a single sarcomere — something only Herzog and a handful of people have ever successfully done — Herzog can study muscle function on a micro level, resulting in the discovery that the protein titin is involved in eccentric muscle contraction.

“What it means, down the road, is that the textbooks will have to be rewritten, because we used to think the only two proteins involved in contraction were myosin and actin. Titin will be added and it’s our research that will be referenced,” Herzog says.

On his collaborative methodology, Herzog says: “When I’m interested I’m absolutely ruthless. If someone is doing really good work in that field, I get together with them, wherever they are, and we share things. I’m completely open, and they are very often completely open too, and I love that.”

Killam Laureates logo.

Killam Laureates logo.

Killam Teaching and Research awards

In addition to the Killam Memorial Chair, the Killam Research and Teaching Awards honour outstanding teaching and research at the University of Calgary.

Killam Emerging Research Leader Award

  • Eric Smith, associate professor in the department of clinical neurosciences, and the first holder of the Kathy Taylor Chair in Vascular Dementia, is working toward building an internationally-recognized program in vascular dementia research. This field of research addresses an important societal need, as dementia has become one of the most prevalent and costly of all medical conditions. Recent evidence shows that about one third of dementia risk is attributed to vascular diseases which remain under-investigated andmay be preventable through strategies such as exercise and blood pressure treatment. Smith’s internationally recognized program of research will lead the activities of eleven researchers from five Canadian universities to define the earliest stages of vascular cognitive impairment and design trials to prevent progression.
  • Tannin Schmidt is not a traditional academic.  As associate professor with the Faculty of Kinesiology and the Schulich School of Engineering, and a Canada Research Chair – Biomaterials, he has been working on translating his research into human benefits and working with industry as co-founder and chief scientific officer (CSO) of Lubris. By translating technology into real processes and products, Schmidt’s work is world-class and will continue to make significant contributions to public health.

Killam Graduate Supervision and Mentorship Award

  • Susan Graham has created a dynamic learning environment that promotes research excellence and attracts talent to the university. Her mentorship follows a scientist-practitioner model blending intensive individual supervision with opportunities for participation in and collaboration within her research networks. Graham currently leads The Language and Cognitive Development Laboratory that serves as a hub for postdoctoral scholars, graduate students and honours undergraduate students interested in research on language and cognitive development during infancy and preschool years. Graham has an exceptional ability to share her profound expertise in ways that encourages innovation and originality among her students, preparing them for equally bright futures.
  • Gerald Zamponi is a professor and senior associate dean for research with the Cumming School of Medicine. A key pillar of his research program is to train the next generation of scientists and his success is reflected by the quality of the research produced, the numerous awards won by his mentees and their success after they leave the lab. His efforts in these areas include the coordination of the Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience core graduate course along with the establishment of a joint-University of Alberta graduate course in ion channel pharmacology. As a result, his supervision and mentorship spans many disciplines and has inspired students to undertake training that provides them with unique experiences and perspectives.

McCaig-Killam Teaching Award

  • David Dick is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy where his students describe him as an “amazing” and “encouraging professor” who not only makes them want to come to each class but, more importantly, transforms their thinking about philosophy, the world and themselves. Also described by his colleagues as a “master teacher,” Professor Dick is a committed pedagogue maintaining the highest standards for student learning and intellectual engagement. His gift of transformational teaching influences the processes through which students engage with the material and with one another, motivating them to continuously push their intellectual boundaries. He leads by example of commitment to focus and process in teaching and enthusiastically shares with his colleagues his strategies for building community in class, teaching controversial topics and enhancing student engagement.

Killam Research Excellence Award

  • Linda Fedigan is internationally recognized for her contributions to our understanding of primate sociality, life histories and conservation. Fedigan holds an NSERC Canada Research Chair position in Primatology in the Department of Anthropology. Since she joined the university, her research profile and leadership have blossomed and her position as a primatologist has solidified. She has helped grow the department’s biological anthropology and primatology research group into the best in Canada and into one of the top-ranking groups in the world. Furthermore, her intellectual stature has contributed to leading the discipline into new areas of research making her the best and most widely renowned Canadian primatologist.

Killam Award in Undergraduate Mentorship

  • Ken Lukowiak is a professor in the department of Physiology & Pharmacology and Hotchkiss Brain Institute. Lukowiak has been actively involved in mentoring and training undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral trainees in his lab since 1980. Furthermore, he has an uninterrupted record of tri-council funding for his entire career and an enviable record as a scholar. Quality mentoring of students has been a hallmark of the Lukowiak lab along with an excellent reputation among members of the world-wide scientific community where students are encouraged to think in innovative ways. They grow to become highly qualified individuals, leaders and recipients of their own academic scholarships. Recently, one of his students was even awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

Visit the Killam Trusts for more information.