Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering, has been awarded the title of University Distinguished Professor by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. 

The title is the university’s highest faculty rank, recognizing scholars whose work has attracted national or international attention. The board honored Duma with this rank at its June meeting. 

Duma has dedicated his career to defining the fundamental engineering processes that unfold in bones and tissues when they’re damaged, by everything from airbags to Nerf darts. As an internationally renowned expert in injury biomechanics, Duma has dedicated his career to preventing injuries by understanding how and why they happen. 

“The breadth, ingenuity, and impact of Dr. Duma’s research is remarkable,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “He has transformed the way we understand injury and countless individuals, including college athletes, pee wee football players, military personnel, bicycle riders, and motorists enjoy a higher level of safety as a result. We are proud to recognize Dr. Duma with this honor for his service to society, his field, and Virginia Tech.”

Duma, whose faculty appointment is in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, has been a member of the Virginia Tech faculty for more than 20 years. His research has attracted more than $55 million in extramural funding. He has authored 567 scholarly publications and been cited more than 13,000 times.

“Very few faculty have had such a wide range of impact as Stefan,” said Julie Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. “He revolutionized injury biomechanics by expanding the toolbox researchers have at their fingertips, but he also helped change how consumers buy sports helmets in the process. He is an outstanding instructor, a champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a gifted leader who has helped Virginia Tech establish biomedical engineering and support transdisciplinary research to better compete on a national scale.”

Throughout his career, Duma has repeatedly pioneered unique methods and techniques that opened new avenues for understanding how injuries occur. Many of the innovations his research enabled continue to improve safety today.

Consider the inside of a car. There’s a good chance that the design of the car’s side airbag and the handle on the passenger side door both reflect Duma’s research on injuries to hands, wrists, and arms in car crashes.

His technique for inserting miniature pressure sensors through the optic nerve led to the first computer model of the human eye and original methods for predicting eye injuries that have been used by the Department of Defense, car manufacturers, and toy companies. He designed a dummy headform embedded with sensors to study the eye and face injuries cause by shrapnel. Today, every U.S. solider wears eye protection that was evaluated using that headform. Displays at water parks have been modified based on Duma’s recommendations to reduce the risk of eye injuries to children.

But the research Duma is best known for began on Virginia Tech’s football fields.

In the early 2000s, as interest was intensifying in the head injuries plaguing professional football players, Duma worked with the staff of Virginia Tech’s varsity team to install sensors in players’ helmets — something that had never been done for a collegiate team. The sensors transmitted data on every hit the players took on the field to researchers, trainers, and sports physicians on the sidelines. The resulting cache of data on hundreds of thousands of impacts provided unprecedented insight into actual head-impact exposure and allowed researchers to begin to map impacts on the field onto injuries to the brain. 

This work informed policy changes that continue to protect athletes. The NCAA eliminated two-a-day preseason practices based on Duma’s research. Armed with analogous data on youth players — who account for most of the people playing football in the U.S. — Duma worked with Pop Warner to cut the most dangerous drills from youth practices. Youth players’ head impacts dropped by half.

Stefan and Brock Duma.

Stefan and Brock Duma in the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab
Stefan Duma's work testing and evaluating youth football helmets provided the first independent safety ratings of protective equipment worn by football's largest cohort of players. Virginia Tech photo

Duma’s data on how athletes hit their heads under real-world conditions have benefited an even broader market through the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings. The ratings, a consumer-oriented scale that provides a quantitative, user-friendly assessment of how effectively a given helmet reduces the risk of concussion, launched with a small set of varsity football helmets in 2011 and now encompass nine sports.

The safety ratings represented consumers’ first access to independent, evidence-based ratings safety ratings for protective headgear. As the resulting market pressure for safer equipment prompted manufacturers to innovate, helmets’ scores have ticked up. The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, which produces the ratings, has made their test methods publicly available so that they can be used as a design tool by manufacturers.

The Helmet Lab is just one of the successful research groups Duma has led.

In 2003, he recruited the small team of talented researchers who became the core of the university’s Center for Injury Biomechanics. Today, the thriving research group comprises 60 students and staff and is regarded as an international leader in military safety, automobile restraints, and sports biomechanics. The 20,000 square foot crash lab Duma designed in partnership with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, where automobile crashes and military blast events are recreated with real-world fidelity, is the largest such facility in any academic setting in the world.

Duma also directed the Virginia Tech School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, expanding the school’s faculty by a factor of six and its research expenditures by a faculty of nine, boosting its rankings and attracting new sources of philanthropic support.

As the head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, he oversaw the merger of two departments, increased its teaching capacity, and grew research expenditures. He also launched the department’s full degree program, whose first class graduated last spring.

Duma now directs the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, a research investment institute that facilitates interdisciplinary research by more than 300 faculty across the university and contributes to over $100 million in research expenditures. Key programs under the institute’s leadership include drone research, quantum information science and engineering, cybersecurity, and materials science and engineering.

Targeted seed funding is one of the institute’s primary tools for accelerating research. One of Duma’s signature programs has been the Diversity and Inclusion Seed Grants, which funds partnerships between Virginia Tech faculty and colleagues at HBCUs/MSIs. The program has fostered 107 partnerships across 35 institutions, led to millions in external funding, and laid the foundation for long-term collaborations.

Duma has also sought out other opportunities to address diversity, equity, and inclusion, in both research and leadership roles. His pioneering research on concussion risk in female athletes and automobile occupants – including pregnant occupants – has helped address a glaring gender gap in biomedical data. He deliberately recruited a more diverse editorial board for the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, where he is editor in chief, and launched an initiative to encourage the use of citation diversity statements by authors who submit papers to the journal.

Duma has played a key role in the Destination Areas initiative. He was the founding director of the Adaptive Brain and Behavior Destination Area and established the associated minor – now among the most popular of the 30 minors included in the Pathways program. Duma’s own course in that minor, Concussion Perspectives, is now taken by more than 1500 students every year, to rave reviews.

“Virginia Tech exemplifies what it means to be a modern land-grant university inspired by service to society,” Duma said. “The driving force behind all my research has been to prevent as many injuries as we can, and it has been a unique privilege to do that work at a university that is fundamentally oriented around the question of how we can improve the human experience. I know how many exceptional faculty members here get up every day and ask how they can be of service, and to receive an honor like this from a university I have been so proud to represent is overwhelming and humbling.”

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