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Kevin Guskiewicz, a world renowned concussion expert and MacArthur “genius” grant winner, will speak at December Commencement ceremony at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Chancellor Carol Folt will preside at the Dec. 15 ceremony at 2 p.m. in the Dean E. Smith Center. She selected Guskiewicz, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Exercise and Sport Science and senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, in consultation with the Commencement Speaker Selection Committee, which includes students and faculty. His selection continues Carolina’s tradition of highlighting faculty speakers at December Commencement.

“Kevin Guskiewicz’s bold and innovative approach to research on concussions makes contact sports safer for athletes of all ages,” Folt said. “He inspires others to think in new ways about safer play. His passion for advancing science and creating new knowledge about injury prevention excites our students. Kevin and his colleagues have made Carolina one of the nation’s leading centers of research on this important health issue.”

Photo of Kevin Guskiewicz.
Kevin Guskiewicz

In August, Time magazine called Guskiewicz an “impact investigator” worthy of inclusion on its list of “Game Changers – America’s top innovators and problem-solvers.” His work has largely focused on improving safety in football – a sport he loves. He has studied concussions since he was a graduate assistant on the training staff of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He joined the University’s department of exercise and sport science in 1995, and served as head athletic trainer for the women’s lacrosse team for three years. In 1998, he became director of the concussion-testing program for all UNC teams.

He is the founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center and research director for the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes. He leads the NFL’s subcommittee on safety equipment and playing rules, and has been working with the league over the last decade to develop safer ways to play the game.

At Carolina, Guskiewicz’s long-term epidemiological study on hundreds of retired football players uncovered a correlation between the number of concussions a player suffered and the appearance of dementia, depression and other brain dysfunction later in life.

To make football a safer sport, Guskiewicz convinced ESPN to cancel a Sunday night feature on the most spectacular hits of the day’s NFL games. He also helped persuade the NFL to move kickoffs from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line, resulting in 33 percent more no-hit touchbacks the following season.

During his experience with the Steelers, Guskiewicz saw that trainers had to lean heavily on the subjective accounts of athletes – reports of dizziness, headaches, memory loss and the like. He developed objective tests that take much of the guess work out of diagnosing concussions and studied the long-term effects that repeated concussions can have on cognitive function. More recently, he has focused on preventing injuries in the first place.

In 2004, Guskiewicz and his colleagues began placing accelerometers in the helmets of UNC football players. Helmets outfitted with accelerometers measure the impact of a blow to the head and send data to the sideline, where a significant collision sets off the head trainer’s pager, enabling him to watch the player more closely for signs of concussion.

Guskiewicz’s work earned him the MacArthur Foundation award in 2011. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago provides an unrestricted award to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality, creativity and the potential to make important future contributions. The fellows, nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields, each receive a total of $500,000 in “no strings attached” support over five years.

Guskiewicz has used part of that award to work with the military on concussions that are caused by blast injuries. Thos collaborations have focused on helping the military quickly and effectively identify the seriousness of injuries and recovery times so that a soldier can be sent to an appropriate treatment location for care.

Published October 28, 2013. Updated December 5, 2013.