Cynthia Bir is an Emmy Award-winning biomedical engineer. That’s right. Bir studies how sports and battlefield injuries impact the body and she applies this knowledge as a lead science advisor on ESPN’s television series “Sport Science.” Bir is a full-time Professor of Research in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Keck Medical Center within the University of Southern California. She has consulted on a number of television series including National Geographic’s “Fight Science,” Stan Lee’s “Superhuman,” “Curiosity – Plane Crash,” and a BBC documentary series called “The Indestructibles.”
Her work on television helps people understand the science and engineering principles underlying the powerful movements and forces at play in the bodies of professional athletes, dancers, and even martial arts fighters.
“I never thought I would win an Emmy,” Bir laughs, “Biomedical engineering has opened up a whole new world for me.”
Bir is known worldwide for her research and expertise on what happens to the human body after sports injuries, ballistic impacts from rubber bullets and other ammunition. She has worked to develop better headgear for boxers and chest protectors for baseball catchers. Recently, Bir has been investigating how explosions can cause whole body injuries along with unseen neurological trauma.
While pursuing a nursing degree in college, Bir realized that her dream was to become a biomedical engineer. So she took classes at a community college at night in order to obtain the prerequisite courses necessary to apply to a biomedical engineering master’s program at the University of Michigan. Bir worked as a home health nurse in order to put herself through school.
“Switching from a life sciences degree to an engineering degree was challenging,” noted Bir. “But it was worth it for me. Most people work very hard to get where they are. You can’t be afraid to take chances.”
After graduation, she worked as a research coordinator in a sports medicine lab at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Later, she would go on to complete a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Wayne State University, all while taking night classes, working full-time during the day, and raising her young boys. After graduating, she added two girls to her growing family while becoming a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Wayne State University.
Today, Cynthia Bir conducts research at the University of Southern California where her works focuses on injury biomechanics. She evaluates the protective nature of body armor and protection vehicles for private security and military uses, sports helmets for football, gloves for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and protective vests for police and correctional officers.
Bir finds her career in biomedical engineering to be rewarding because she can see very quickly how her research is translated into actual market products sold to consumers. She enjoys being able to decide what kinds of research she conducts and touts the flexibility of her career.
Bir’s path was not a linear one. She advises students interested in biomedical engineering to “explore all potential areas of interest in order to narrow down the area you want to work in.” She adds, “Treat it like a career, not a job, to stay engaged.”