Third year student studies human motility in Kenya

For over a month during the summer, third-year student Diane Bernardoni had a diet composed entirely of rice, beans, noodles, bread and various other starches. She was without cellphone reception and regular access to water, in the deep interior of Kenya near Lake Turkana. Her fascination with hominids—all of the great apes, including humans—was what led her there.

Bernardoni was one of the 24 applicants invited to attend Koobi Fora Field School this past summer. The field school is an immersive experience that educates students about various field techniques and provides an introduction to anthropological research in a geographic region rich with fossil history.

Under the guidance of Eve Boyle, a graduate student at George Washington University, Bernardoni conducted research about walking and running mechanics.

“Running and walking have different mechanics. When you walk, it’s a pendulum mechanic and you have both feet on the ground,” said Bernardoni. “But with running, you have to have one foot on the ground and have more of a mass spring mechanic, so foot clearance is less of an issue.”

Working with Boyle and a third team member from Hunter College, Bernardoni’s central objective involved determining the effect of limb length on motor efficiency with the goal of proving that longer limbs allow for greater stride length and greater locomotor efficiency.

The research project involved running trials, which were conducted with members of the Dassanech tribe. The Dassanech people, who are habitually barefoot, live in the Omo Valley near Lake Turkana.

The research team had 40 members of the Dassanech commit to 36 trials each on three different tracks of increasing elevation. Each member walked four trials, jogged four trials and sprinted four trials on each track, with flat terrain serving as the controlled variable.

Each trial was recorded, and with the aid of ImageJ, a video analysis software, the team is in the process of analyzing each of the 500 videos to identify foot-strike patterns and measure stride length.

In the field, the team used biomechanical markers, white points also used in things like fitness tests, to help with the video analysis. Anatomical markings were also used to measure biomechanical angles, such as hip flexion.

“We had markers on the head of metatarsal five, the calcaneus, and the lateral malleolus and the bottom of the calcaneal body,” said Bernardoni. “We measured the angle so that we could quantify [and] not just eyeball it.”

The preliminary results, according to Bernardoni, were surprising. While the running trials supported the initial hypothesis that longer limbs have greater stride length and efficiency, the walking trials supported the opposite.

The team will have to conduct further analysis on the videos of the trials in order to make a more definitive conclusion.

“I’ve always loved evolutionary biology,” said Bernardoni. “It sounds a little human-centric, but it’s kind of cool that I get to study hominids too, because really what it does is answer the question [of] ‘why?’”

Currently pursuing degrees in physical anthropology, evolutionary biology and mathematics, Bernardoni hopes to attend graduate school to study anthropology and possibly continue field research.

“With this research, I get to go to cool places, meet cool people—some of [whom] have been dead for millions of years—and I get to answer the question of why we are who we are,” said Bernardoni.