Faculty Profile: Thomas Roberts, PhD

Thomas Roberts
Thomas Roberts, PhD
Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Work: +1 401-863-3608
My research uses the tools of biomechanics and functional morphology to study how animals move. Among vertebrates, the mechanical behavior of muscles, tendons, and bones is quite conserved at the tissue and cellular levels. The diversity of locomotor performance results in large part from the arrangement and interaction of these components. I investigate the integrated function of muscles, tendons, and skeletal lever systems to better understand the evolution of musculoskeletal design.


My training is in biomechanics and comparative physiology. I received my B.A. in Biology from the University of Chicago and my Ph.D. from the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department at Harvard University. In my graduate work I used a broad comparative approach to examine the link between musculoskeletal morphology and the metabolic energy cost of running. As a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern I focused on the physiological and mechanical behavior of skeletal muscle. My research program aims to integrate our understanding of muscle physiology with modern approaches in functional morphology and biomechanics.



Research Description

Research in my lab is aimed at understanding the physiological bases for locomotor performance in vertebrates. Many features of locomotor behavior have yet to be explained from physiological principles because our understanding of the integrated function of the musculoskeletal system is limited. Two current areas of interest in my lab explore this integrated function. First, can the patterns of metabolic energy demand with running speed and across animal size be explained from principles of muscle physiology? We are combining studies of the mechanical function of muscles during running with physiological studies of muscle metabolism to try to understand the physiological basis of locomotor cost. Second, what sets the limit to acceleration performance in terrestrial animals? We currently use frog jumping as a model for understanding the relationship between the mechanical properties of muscles and tendons and an animal's ability to rapidly accelerate.

Students in my lab use a variety of approaches and techniques, from the application of standard tools of biomechanics (high-speed video, force plates) to isolated muscle contractile property measurements, to computer-based dynamic simulations. We are opportunistic in our choice of study organisms. Currently wild turkeys are important study animals for our work on running, and we use several species of frogs to study acceleration.

The motivation behind my research is two-fold. As an evolutionary biologist, I am interested in understanding how muscle and tendon properties have shaped the evolution of animal size and form. As a physiologist, I am eager to use the power of a comparative approach to provide a fundamental understanding of musculoskeletal function that can ultimately be applied to problems of human health.

Grants and Awards

National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, 1990-1993

Chapman Fellowship, Harvard University, 1995

Individual National Research Service Award, National Institutes of Health, 1995-1998

National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in Biosciences Related to the Environment (declined)


Member, American Physiological Society

Member, American Society of Biomechanics

Member, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology

Funded Research

National Institutes of Health, R01 AR055295
"Elastic mechanisms in locomotion"
PI: T. Roberts
8/2012 - 7/2016, $1,594,000.

Air Force Office of Scientific Research AFOSR 12RSL086
Dynamics of bat wing musculature
co-PIs: S. Swartz and T. Roberts
06/01/12-02/30/16, $1,220,000.

National Science Foundation IOS0925077
Kinematics and kinetics of long-axis rotation in avian bipedal locomotion.
co-PIs: S. Gatesy and T. Roberts
07/01/09-06/31/14, $423,000.

National Institutes of Health, R01 AR055295
"Elastic mechanisms in locomotion"
PI: T. Roberts
8/2008 - 7/2012, $937,152.

National Science Foundation NSF 0642428
"Integrated muscle-tendon function in frog jumping"
PI: T. Roberts
4/2007 - 3/2010, $385,000.

W. M. Keck Foundation
"A proposal to design and build a dynamic 3-D Skeletal imaging system"
PI: E. Brainerd; Co-PI: T. Roberts and 6 others
12/2007-12/2010, $1,800,000.

Brown University, Research Seed Funding Award
"Development and Verification of CTX Imaging for Musculoskeletal Biomechanics Research"
PI: E. Brainerd; Co-PI: T. Roberts and 3 others
1/2006-12/2006, $100,000.

National Institutes of Health, RO1 AR046499
"Dynamics of force production during running"
PI: T. Roberts
2001-2005, $557,502

Department of Education GAANN training grant
"Analysis of complex behaviors"
PI: S. Arnold; Co-Investigator: T. Roberts and 7 others
2001-2003, $304,500.

Medical Research Foundation of Oregon
"Influence of muscle force-velocity properties on running mechanics"
PI: T. Roberts
2000-2001, $25,000

Teaching Experience

I have taught courses in human anatomy, human physiology, environmental physiology, and biomechanics. Currently I teach gross anatomy to first-year medical students.

Courses Taught

  • Directed Research/Independent Study (BIO195)
  • Human Morphology (Bio181)

Selected Publications

  • Astley, H.C., Roberts, T.J. (2012). Evidence for a vertebrate catapult: elastic energy storage in the plantaris tendon during frog jumping. Biol. Lett 8: 386-389. Konow, N., Azizi, E., Roberts, T.J. (2012). Muscle power attenuation by tendon during energy dissipation. Proc. Biol. Sci 279: 1108-1113. (2012)
  • Roberts, T.J., Azizi, E. (2011). Flexible mechanisms: the diverse roles of biological springs in vertebrate movement. J. Exp. Biol 214: 353-361. (2011)
  • Azizi, E., Brainerd, E. L. and Roberts, T. J. (2008). Variable gearing in pennate muscles. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U S A 105, 1745-50. (2008)
  • Gabaldon, A. M., Nelson, F. E. and Roberts, T. J. (2008). Relative shortening velocity in locomotor muscles: turkey ankle extensors operate at low V/Vmax. Am. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol. 294, R200-10. (2008)
  • Roberts TJ and Marsh RL. (2003) Probing the limits to muscle-powered accelerations: lessons from jumping bullfrogs. J. Exp. Biol. 206: 2567-2580. (2003)
  • Roberts, T. J. (2002). The integrated function of muscles and tendons during locomotion. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. A: 133, 1087-1099. (2002)
  • Roberts, T. J., Marsh, R. L., Weyand, P. G. and C. R. Taylor. (1997). Muscular force in running turkeys: the economy of minimizing work. Science 275, 1113-1115. (1997)