Geoff Burns

EGL (BSE/MSE-Biomedical Engineering) '13

Motion Science, School of Kinesiology

University of Michigan


Dr. Geoff Burns (EGL BSE/MSE Biomedical Engineering '13) defended his Ph.D. thesis just before the university suspended in-person events due to COVID-19.

We caught up with Geoff in his Ann Arbor apartment via zoom - and heard how he applied the principles he learned at the Tauber Institute to achieve success as a professional ultramarathoner while pursuing his doctoral studies in Movement Science at the Michigan School of Kinesiology. (Geoff has tips on some great Michigan wines, too!)

View an abstract of Geoff's Ph.D. thesis:

Runners as Biomechanical Systems.pdf

Follow Geoff on twitter: @geoffreyburns

What is it like living in Ann Arbor right now?

I want to say - Ann Arbor is crazy in that it’s the inverse of crazy. It’s exactly not crazy. It actually reminds me of Ann Arbor in the summertime when all the students are gone and it’s much quieter… I think the thing that’s shocking is walking around downtown and it’s like a ghost town. If the prescription right now is social distancing, Ann Arbor is definitely getting an A, doing it well.

How have you been affected by the closure of the university and other restrictions?

I was fortunate to defend my dissertation on the last day that the university was open – that last Friday. I was the last public dissertation at the university and one of the last public events. Then after that was the time that I would be shutting down and recovering anyway – and that was exactly what I did.

My life outside of research is largely just running, eating, and sleeping, so I’m no stranger to a monastic life! So this hasn’t affected me too much – but what’s been really interesting has been interacting with other people for whom this has been a huge change. That has inspired a great sense of empathy for different personality types and how different people need social structures to work and to balance themselves.

Since you finished the Tauber program, a lot has happened in your life. Catch us up!

The Tauber program was so important for me, but I think I am somebody who is not set up to slide into a traditional operations job – I’m very much somebody who is meant for the academic world and scientific research. So I kept struggling in the years after Tauber to figure out where I wanted to go. I worked in Los Angeles for a medical device company as a validation engineer, then came back to the University of Michigan to serve as a biomechanics research engineer for the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, and then had the opportunity to pursue my doctoral studies in Kinesiology, studying running biomechanics.

And that goes in tandem with the other thing that I do, which is a huge part of my identity, is that I love the sport of running and I compete internationally in ultramarathons. I actually applied a lot of the principles we learned in the Tauber program to my training in order to balance full-time training with full-time working, to essentially operationally optimize my life to fit all of those things in. I found a lot of success training myself, and I’ve now represented the U.S. at several world championships in the 50K and 100K. In 2016 and 2018, I placed 5th in the world in both of those races, and I’ve also raced in other big international competitions like the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa, and placed highly there.

I submitted my final dissertation to Rackham and got the thumbs up that everything’s done, so it is now “Dr. Geoff Burns!” It feels absolutely incredible to say that. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the Tauber program.

How did the Tauber program influence your career?

All of the modules that we did – for some MBA students some may have been review – but for me as an engineer, especially as a biomedical engineer, I never heard of Value Stream Mapping or Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, anything like that. It was like things that had been going on in my mind suddenly all made sense.

I’m thinking of a very simple example of how I incorporate those lessons into my athletic life: I was working in Los Angeles as an engineer, and also trying to train… so I started identifying where is there waste in my life that I can condense, filter out, so that I can maximize that time that I can sleep and train. At that time I was fresh out of the Tauber program so it was a very intellectual exercise. Now, that’s just how I think, it feels like a very native thing that’s incorporated in all aspects of my life.

In terms of my work, scientific research is very much a process, much like a manufacturing process, and I think my ability to view it as such is incredibly powerful. I view collecting data on subjects as a process that’s a factory in itself… The Tauber program has given me incredible tools that most people in my field don’t have.

What would other alumni would be surprised to learn about you?

Running and sports are my two huge passions, but when I’m not training – the other passion in my life is wine. It was actually on my Tauber project in Poland when I really fell in love with wine and ever since then I’ve just dove into not just the characteristics of different wine and pairing them with foods, but the science. I’ve read textbooks on winemaking and the biochemistry of wine, because I think it’s just fascinating.

Do you have a favorite we should try?

I’m totally biased, because I’m from northern Michigan, but if you’re back in Michigan, take a trip to the Leelenau Peninsula – it is one of the most underrated wine producing regions in North America. The rieslings up in Northern Michigan are just incredible. Black Star Farms is fantastic, and Left Foot Charley is probably my favorite.