Dr Jason Tak-Man Cheung: where science meets sport

3 October 2017

For more than a decade, Dr Cheung has never stopped trying to find better solutions and approaches to enhance the influence of science and engineering in Chinese sports footwear industry.

Dr Jason Tak-Man Cheung (Croucher Fellowship 2006) is currently Chief Scientist and Senior Director of the Footwear Research and Development and Innovation Centre at XTEP, one of the country’s most innovative sports footwear brands. His core responsibilities are to establish world-class research facilities, alongside a team of innovators, designers, scientists, and engineers.

Cheung played basketball and badminton competitively at school, which is where his interest in sports footwear began. He recalls visiting sportswear retailers in his spare time, and studying footwear designs. An interest in structure and form led to his decision to study mechanical and automation engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “I still loved sports and footwear, but now I could focus on the details – it was an important step in preparing for my later scientific career,” Cheung notes.

In the third year of his undergraduate studies, Cheung focused on a biomedical engineering project using finite element analysis (FEA), a computational method for simulating and analysing the behaviour of engineering structures and components under a variety of conditions. FEA is used in engineering design to augment or replace experimental testing by subdividing a large problem into smaller, finite elements.

Finite element foot and shoe model

After graduating, Cheung moved to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and continued his studies under the supervision of Professor Zhang Ming, an internationally renowned scientist in the field of computational biomechanics. For his master’s thesis, he used FEA and other computational and engineering approaches, to study the design and performance of the metal plates used by orthopaedic surgeons to repair bone fractures.

“I enjoyed my master’s degree very much because I was interested in applying an engineering approach to solve medical questions. Despite my passion for sports, the sports side was still very separate from my academic projects at this stage,” he says. “I published a paper based on my findings, and realised for the first time that I could do something valuable in the world of science, so I was very motivated to progress to a PhD.”

To help him to secure funding, Cheung first worked on a pilot study on foot biomechanics. This involved using a 3D simulation of a foot, to look in detail at loading distribution and deformation. Cheung recreated his own foot using a series of MRI scans, and successfully gained funding for his research project and doctoral studies.

For his doctoral studies, Cheung focused on constructing a stronger and more geometrically accurate model, and looked at the biomechanical interactions between the foot and foot orthoses, or insoles, using a 3D computational model of the foot and ankle. He studied different sole orthotic designs, foot biomechanics and surgical conditions, looking at orthotics and their effectiveness at redistributing plantar foot pressure, internal force distributions of the bones, joints structures and re-aligning foot joints.

Cheung’s work provided a breakthrough, “at this time, the FEA technique was very new, particularly in the area of foot biomechanics and the medical profession was still very skeptical. We demonstrated that you could use the FEA computational model to better understand and solve real problems in foot biomechanics,” he explains.

With the success of his PhD project, Cheung hoped to find funding to continue his research in this area. In 2005, he attended a satellite meeting of the International Society of Biomechanics, where he presented the findings of his PhD project to an audience of 100 specialists. “To my amazement, during the coffee break, I was offered three jobs,” he recalls. The one that he accepted was a postdoctoral position with Professor Benno Nigg’s research group at the Human Performance Laboratory of the University of Calgary, Canada. This was considered to be an influential research group in sports science, sports medicine and biomechanics.

In Calgary, his schoolboy fascination with sport and sports footwear was finally merged with his scientific passion for structure and his skill at FEA modelling.  He could model any footwear on any foot using FEA to examine the interaction of shoes with the foot. No one had ever done this before using a geometrically accurate FEA model.

On completion of his post-doctoral work, he returned to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and worked with Professor Zhang Ming on a project to examine the biomechanical impact of wearing high-heel shoes. He was assisting Professor Zhang with this project when he was approached by Li Ning, a Chinese sportswear brand. Li Ning were looking for someone to be the head of their sports science research centre and to lead their research team. As a relatively new and successful company based in Beijing, and this was an exciting opportunity for Cheung. He moved to Beijing and proceeded to build a science laboratory for world-class research.  His work led to a number of commercial footwear products and patent applications, as part of research into cushioning concepts.

One collaborative project with the University of Ghent, Belgium, led to a new concept in sports shoe design. The research team, led by Cheung, discovered that some runners change their landing style when they change their running speed, so they developed and patented a running shoe that accommodated differing landing patterns and their respective cushioning needs, known as ‘strike transition.’

In July 2015, Cheung moved to XTEP to take up a more senior role as the Chief Scientist and Senior Director of Research and Development and Innovation. In his current role, he is responsible for establishing and managing world-class science and engineering footwear R&D facilities, and leads an internationally competitive footwear research team. 

Cheung’s continuing passion for sports shoes is evident in a recent feature article published in the South China Morning Post which describes a shopping trip to Kowloon’s famous Sneaker Street in Kowloon.

Dr Jason Tak-Man Cheung obtained his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and received his master’s and PhD in Biomedical Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The finite element approach he applies in footwear research has received significant attention in the field of orthopedics and footwear in academia and industry. 

To view Dr Cheung's Croucher profile, please click here.