Better, faster, stronger: Tennis champ researching prosthetics that push the limits

Eric Honert and a model foot (Photo by John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

Eric Honert ranked as Colorado’s best collegiate tennis player last year. He spent the summer climbing as many of the Colorado Fourteeners – mountains with peaks of 14,000 feet elevation or higher – as he could fit in. He runs miles a day just for fun and enjoys even the brief 10 minutes it takes him to bicycle to Vanderbilt University from home.

So the graduate student in mechanical engineering from Arvada, Colo., spends a lot of time thinking about how he can call upon his individual body parts and push them to their limits.

And out of all those he’s considered, he’s chosen one as his research focus: the lowly toe.

But Honert contends it’s far more important to human movement than most people may think.

He’s working with Karl Zelik, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and exploring the world of prosthetic legs and feet.

“Current research is out there saying that your toes actually dissipate energy rather than add it,” Honert said. “One of my first experiments is to tease out what the toes are actually doing. If they are dissipating energy, that’s fine, but we don’t want to be held back when we’re making prosthetic feet by just making them mimic regular human anatomy.

“If we can push our bodies further than usual physical limits, that’s great.”

Honert earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering with a Spanish minor from Valparaiso University in Indiana. But his interest in body mechanics began long before that, through his chiropractor father, Jeff Honert, and his athletic family. Both Eric Honert’s parents run ultramarathons, and an older sister is a ballerina with the Saint Louis Ballet.

Tennis drew Honert’s interest early on to upper-extremity biomechanics, particularly the complicated shoulder. He remembers a high-school match that ended with a displaced clavicle that his father reset onsite. But as more lower-extremity injuries stacked up in his tennis career, Honert’s attention shifted.

He attended Valparaiso because he liked its size, mechanical engineering program and Division I tennis team. He set the school’s record for singles wins, became team captain and earned the Colorado Collegiate Player of the Year Award on Jan. 23 in Denver from USTA Colorado.

Honert applied to Vanderbilt for his mechanical engineering Ph.D. because he wanted to work with Michael Goldfarb, the H. Fort Flowers Chair in mechanical engineering, who is working on a new exoskeleton for paraplegic patients.

But Honert didn’t know the School of Engineering already had hired another star in biomechanics – Zelik, director of the Biomechanics & Assistive Technology Laboratory – who was starting in the Fall 2014 semester.

Zelik, himself a college track-and-field standout, said he knew Honert’s record of academic success and leadership in athletics would make him an ideal fit in the BAT Lab.

“I was impressed with his ability to balance collegiate athletics, academic studies and involvement in extracurricular research related to biomechanics and prosthetic technology,” Zelik said. “Since arriving at Vanderbilt, Eric has demonstrated a strong self-motivation and a genuine scientific curiosity.”

The one activity Honert doesn’t do these days is play tennis. After two years balancing a 3.9 GPA with serving as captain of a college tennis team in transition, he said he’s ready to step away.

But he might be up for a friendly match someday.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering