May 8, 2018

Prestigious Killam Prize awarded to Walter Herzog, pioneer in biomechanics

Ground-breaking muscle contraction research affects bone and joint health
Professor Walter Herzog is the first recipient of the Killam Prize at the University of Calgary since 1991.

Walter Herzog is the first recipient of the Killam Prize at the University of Calgary since 1991.

The University of Calgary's Walter Herzog, a self-described “accidental scientist,” has been awarded one of Canada’s most prestigious honours for a scientist: the Killam Prize.

The Killam Prizes are awarded to up to five active Canadian scholars who have made a substantial and significant contribution to their respective fields in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences or engineering. The last time the University of Calgary received this prize was in 1991.

“This is a tremendous honour. I am happy to share this accolade with the University of Calgary, who supported my interdisciplinary research, and my colleagues who have graciously collaborated with me over the course of my career,” says Herzog, director of the Human Performance Lab in the Faculty of Kinesiology.

This year’s award winners have pioneered some of the world’s forefront cultural, medical and scientific discoveries to date.

“I am thrilled that Walter is being honoured for one of Canada’s most prestigious awards. Walter’s curiosity, passion and hard work has led to ground-breaking discoveries in the field of biomechanics and muscle-contraction, giving hope to people living with bone, joint and muscular diseases,” says Ed McCauley, vice-president (research), University of Calgary.

A world-renowned pioneer

Herzog’s desire to know how things work fundamentally led to where he is today: a world-renowned pioneer in biomechanics. His research is focused on the neuro-biomechanics of the musculoskeletal system, specifically the molecular mechanisms of how muscles contract and how muscles affect bone and joint health. 

“Many of my major discoveries have come from experiments that were not aimed at finding/studying that discovery; rather they were serendipitous byproducts of otherwise unrelated experiments,” says Herzog. “I learned that your mind always needs to be prepared for the unexpected.”

His career path was equally unexpected.

Postdoctoral student at UCalgary

Herzog left his home country of Switzerland at 23. He was a middle distance runner in his youth and entered graduate studies in biomechanics with the goal to become a national team coach in track and field, and had the privilege to be part of a team responsible for preparing the horizontal jumpers of the United States for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Herzog did his undergraduate training at the ETH in Zurich, received his doctoral degree from the University of Iowa in biomechanics, and completed postdoctoral training at the University of Calgary in 1987 and stayed.

“I had several offers to go back to Europe, including my home country Switzerland, but the vicinity of the majestic and incomparable Rocky Mountains, and the freedom provided by the University of Calgary to pursue my dreams, always seemed to take the day,” says Herzog, a professor of biomechanics in kinesiology, medicine, engineering, and veterinary medicine.

Herzog also holds the Canada Research Chair for Cellular/Molecular Biomechanics, and the Killam Memorial Chair for interdisciplinary research at the University of Calgary. He is the recipient of career awards from the American, Canadian, and International Societies of Biomechanics, and was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada in 2013.

About the Killam Prize

The Killam Prize was first awarded in 1981. Previous winners include Brenda Milner, Victoria Kaspi, Mark Wainberg, Molly Shoichet, John Borrows, Nobel Prize winners Arthur McDonald and John Polanyi — to name just a few. The Canada Council received a donation through the will of Mrs. Dorothy J. Killam in 1965 to establish a fellowship program (1967). Other UCalgary recipients of the Killam Prize are Drs. J. William Costerton (1990), Gordon H. Dixon (1991) and Walter H. Dilger (1991).