Pregnant drivers, football players safer thanks to a top Virginia Tech researcher



Stefan Duma
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Blacksburg, Va. -- Biomechanics innovations ranging from a computer model of a pregnant driver to a head injury monitoring system for the Hokie football team have earned Virginia Tech researcher Stefan Duma a place among the world's top young technology developers.

Duma, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and founding director of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics, was named by Technology Review to the 2006 "TR35" roster of the top 35 innovators under the age of 35.

The editors of Technology Review, a publication of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the oldest technology magazine in existence, selected the TR35 honorees from among hundreds of nominations submitted by universities and industries around the world. Profiles of Duma and the other researchers will appear in the magazine's September/October edition and also on the website on Sept. 8 (visit http://www.technologyreview.com/).

Duma and the other researchers in the 2006 TR35 class will be honored during Technology Review's Emerging Technologies Conference, Sept. 27-28 at MIT. Speakers at the event will include Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeffrey Bezos and AOL chairman and CEO Jonathan Miller.

An alumnus of the University of Tennessee, Duma completed his first automobile safety project, "An Experimental Study of Airbag Induced Injuries," in 1996 as his master's thesis at the University of Cincinnati and realized that the subject of human impact injuries was largely uncharted research territory. Since completing his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and joining the Virginia Tech mechanical engineering faculty in 2000, he has laid the groundwork for a remarkable range of research.

One of his unique contributions to the field of injury biomechanics is the world's first computer model of a pregnant driver. The inspiration for the model came in 2001 when was his wife, Christine, was pregnant with the couple's first child.

"If a pregnant driver is in a car accident, there are a number of increased injury risks," Duma said. "The risk is primarily fetal mortality." A study by Duma's research group estimated that about 1,500 fetuses in the second and third trimesters are killed each year in automotive accidents.

Using Christine as the human model, Duma developed a computer model simulating a uterus and fetus at the seven-and-a-half month stage. The model is being used by automakers to test new restraint designs for pregnant drivers and also can be used to study injuries to pregnant women and fetuses in cases of domestic violence and falls.

Another first is a study of head impact injuries that began during Virginia Tech's 2003-2004 football season. Working with Dr. Gunnar Brolinson, head football team physician and a professor in the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Mike Goforth, team trainer with Virginia Tech Sports Medicine, Duma equips the Hokies' football helmets with sensors that record impacts in terms of G (gravity) forces. The sensors transmit real-time data to a sideline computer system that keeps track of a range of head impact information for each player wearing the sensors.

Aimed at discovering the levels at which impacts begin to result in concussions and other brain traumas, the study has found that players typically receive 50 to 100 head impacts per game, the most severe equal to the force of car crashes. Coaches and physicians with a number of football teams are using the system for real-time assessments of head impacts. Duma expects the study to result in designs for safer sports head gear, as well as new concussion treatment and evaluation methods.

The Eye Injury Research Program established by Duma at Virginia Tech is the nation's largest research program for airbag-induced eye injuries and one of the largest for all types of eye injuries. His group developed the first computer model of the human eye that can accurately predict the probability of eye injury under any type of impact, as well as the first fluid-filled synthetic eye equipped with sensors to precisely replicate the effects of impacts on the human eye.

In 2005, Duma received the American Society of Biomechanics (ABS) Young Scientist Award in recognition his research program. This year he is chair of the host committee for the ABS annual conference, which has attracted an international gathering of more than 500 researchers to Virginia Tech for the Sept. 6-9 event.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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