In conversation with Peter Aerts

31 October 2016 - By: Sarah Blackford

In conversation with Peter Aerts

Peter Aerts

By Sarah Blackford

By his own admission, Peter Aerts, professor of Biology at the University of Antwerp, is a self-made biomechanicist. “Simple is beautiful,” he says. “If you can reduce the complex to the essentials then you can start to answer the basic questions and address the fundamental principles.” 

SB: How did you first get interested in biomechanics?

PA: During my degree at the University of Ghent I started to take an interest in developmental biology. Then, during my PhD I developed this interest further by studying the mechanics of the feeding habits in fishes. At the time, our lab was not equipped for biomechanics research, so I focused on morphology and evolved more towards simple modelling, rather than doing experimental work. However, that all changed when I moved to Antwerp.

SB: Tell me more about this turning point in your career. 

PA: Just at the time a postdoctoral mandate at Ghent ended, the Belgium National Science Foundation was offering a few permanent research associate positions for people who wanted to move to another university.  Antwerp is only 60 kilometres from Ghent, but luckily it still counted! 

SB: And you’re still there now.

PA: Yes, I’ve been here for 27 years now. One of the most positive things about the move to Antwerp was being able to conduct kinematical and dynamical analyses – leading me to become an experimentalist, as well as a modeller. In addition to my research, I also began to take on quite a lot of teaching; not many staff in the department could deliver zoology courses, so this side of my career developed quite rapidly. Nowadays, currently with a lab of 15 members, I have taken on a greater teaching load and many more administrative and management duties. I probably take on too much, but I like to free up more research time for younger colleagues to enable them to make progress and develop their careers. 

SB: You’ve been very supportive of students and early career researchers during your time as the SEB’s biomechanics session organiser and group convenor.

PA: What I like about the SEB Meeting is it provides an audience for young researchers. Our prizes for the best poster and paper presentations are now in their 11th year and still going strong. In fact, we have just renamed the awards the Ralph McNeill Alexander awards for Biomechanics, in honour of one of the heroes of the biomechanics era, who recently passed away. Neill was a huge source of inspiration to me during my early years as a researcher, and it was at an SEB Meeting in the 1990s that we initiated our collaborative research on heel pad mechanics, from which we published several co-authored papers. I always encourage my PhD students to attend the meeting, in particular the biomechanics sessions, even 1st years (as long as they have something to present). If they look at the programme and say there’s nothing on their topic, I say “Everything is on your topic!”

SB: Biomechanics lends itself very well to media interest with its weird and wonderful examples of animal movement. How do you choose which species to study? 

PA: I’m a functional morphologist with an interest in the muscular skeletal system - I have great respect for all species that exhibit extraordinary behaviour. Following my PhD, I continued for a while to work on feeding in fishes, but my interest started to rapidly move towards other animals and also towards locomotion. Together with a colleague, I initially started studying lizard locomotion and feeding, but also swimming in eels and salamanders, and swimming and jumping in frogs. Since then, my research interests have developed to include vertebrates such as birds, horses, primates and humans, although I do occasionally divert my attention to invertebrates. 

SB: What’s the basis of your experimental measurements? What type of equipment do you use? 

PA: For my research work on the development of walking, we use multi-camera set ups and also measure ground reaction forces. With this information you can do inverse dynamics modelling which tells you what (and to what extent) muscle groups are being used to generate the movement patterns observed. Electromyography (EMG) further dissects this information to identify the activity of specific muscles. We’ve been working with the physical education department in Ghent using runways, inclines and stairs to measure the development of human locomotion. It takes time to build the set up, but you can ask your test people to do what you want so it’s under your control. In contrast, the research we conducted on bonobos and gibbons at Antwerp zoo was more tricky, as we were not allowed to have any direct interaction with the animals; once they had become accustomed to a ‘catwalk’ in the outdoor enclosure, we had to build in the equipment (force plates, pressure mats, etc.) overnight and hope that the bonobos didn’t notice a difference or try to sabotage the set-up. You can only hope they will do what you want them to do – it’s challenging but always interesting!

SB: Tell me something about your current research.
PA: The evolution of bipedal locomotion in humans is a fascinating area of study. For instance, it seems that we still exhibit a remnant of our quadrupedal locomotion, known as ‘bipedal galloping’ or, more commonly, skipping. Everyone can do it, and early walking development in children shows a skipping gait. This skipping is equivalent to the action of the hindquarter of a galloping horse or dog – we humans tend to revert to it when we are less in control of our movement, such as running downhill fast. 

SB: With the Olympics games taking place in Rio at the moment, it begs the question whether you have ever worked with athletes to improve their performance. 

PA: About 10 years ago we (Physical Education Department at Ghent University) collaborated with the Federation of Athletics to study the action of Belgian high jumper, Tia Hellebaut, who went on to win the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. I’m not sure whether we played a part in her success, but it was very pleasing for us as you can imagine. In some ways, working with athletes during competitions is comparable to that of working with primates in zoos – that is, we are not allowed any direct interaction with them, so we have to find ingenious ways to record them. It’s fun to do!

SB: I get the sense that you very much enjoy your work and even your Skype name is “Funmorphpa”. 

PA: It’s very important to me that I still get enjoyment out of my research, even though it’s inevitable that, as a senior academic, I’m more occupied with management, administration and university policy matters. The “pa” part of “Funmorphpa” relates to my initials but, in fact, could be construed as being “father”.  Some people might find that a bit ambitious, but at this stage of my career I’m becoming more or less a “pa” in the field and some might say, the silverback of my lab! As for the “fun part”, having attended the annual SEB meeting since the 1980s and not missed a single year after 1990, I can say, for sure, that these few days in my working life are always highly informative, stimulating and, above all else, fun.


Category: Animal Biology
Sarah Blackford - Author Profile

Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford is the head of education and public affairs at the SEB and the editor of the SEB magazine. As a qualified careers adviser and MBTI practitioner, Sarah provides career development and support for SEB members and the wider scientific community. Sarah is also an active member within SEB+, focusing on a number of initiatives aimed at improving gender equality and diversity in the science field.