Breaking Barriers: Brittany Mills' story of persistence in the field of biomechanics

Feb. 20, 2023


Pictured: Purdue alumna Brittany Mills poses for a graduation photo on the steps of Hovde Hall at Purdue University. 

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, over 10,000 Purdue students entered the workforce ready to use their brand-new degrees. But like many of her peers, Brittany Mills faced hurdles finding the right gig in a job market suddenly turned upside down.

“I was working at Starbucks with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering,” laughs Mills, a 2020 graduate. “I had something lined up post-graduation, but it fell through. So, I worked as a barista while applying for jobs,” she shares. “Pretty soon, I became tired of the rejections and frustrated I couldn’t find a role that I really wanted.”

Mills knew the “typical” job for a mechanical engineer wasn’t the right fit for her. “In college, I did an internship with Under Armour working on the development of basketball shoes—including their Stephen Curry Collection. I enjoyed applying my engineering skills in a sports environment.” 

But Mills wanted to do more than sit at a desk researching traction patterns. “What I enjoyed was connecting with people. I wanted a job that had more one-on-one time with players and coaches.”

That led Mills to discover the burgeoning field of biomechanics. “It’s the intersection of engineering and kinesiology,” says Mills. “We look at motion capture data and evaluate the players’ mechanics. Have you ever seen people with a bunch of dots on them? Like for video games or a movie? It's a similar idea. We model the skeleton and see how it’s moving through time and space. It’s a tremendous tool for improving performance and limiting injury.”

Univ-of-Nebraska-Lab-Photo.jpg Driveline-Baseball-Comp-Sim-Photo.jfif

Pictured: In the top photo, a pitcher outfitted with motion capture markers throws a baseball in the lab. In the bottom photo, the pitcher’s movements are simulated on a computer. Photos courtesy of the University of Nebraska Omaha and Driveline Baseball.

But because the field of biomechanics is so new, Mills had to forge her own path and be persistent in the pursuit of her dream job. Today, her determination has paid off, with Mills serving as the Washington Nationals’ first biomechanist and the first Black, female biomechanist in Major League Baseball.

Forging Her Path at Purdue

Mills had a somewhat unusual journey at Purdue. “I always knew I wanted to work in the sports industry,” she reflects. “It occurred to me that just because mechanical engineering was my major, I didn’t have to limit myself to only engineering classes. I had to think about the bigger picture and set myself apart. So, I took classes outside of my major, like sports psychology.”

Her unique path caused some to criticize Mills’ choices, though. “A lot of people said things like, ‘I don't know how that's going to work.’ But I was always confident that I could figure it out. If I couldn’t get into a class, I would go sit in on the lectures anyway. I wanted to learn, one way or another.”

A huge support for Mills during her time at Purdue was the Helen Bass Williams Academic Success Center . Her freshman year, Mills sought out help with a chemistry class through the center’s Supplemental Instruction (SI) program. But a better grade wasn’t the only thing she walked away with.

“I felt very lost freshman year. College was difficult, and I was struggling. But getting involved with the Academic Success Center and Purdue’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers grounded me. I found friends inside and outside of my major.”

Sophomore year, Mills became a Supplemental Instruction leader for calculus. “It’s a great learning experience. You work with a wide range of people—different life experiences, different learning backgrounds, different communication styles, different confidence levels.” 

That experience has continued to benefit Mills long after her time at Purdue. “SI taught me how to discuss complicated topics with diverse groups of people. Especially in the biomechanics space—since it’s a newer field with complicated topics—I know how to help people understand my work and the importance of what we’re doing.”

Mills encourages Boilermakers who are taking their own unique journeys to utilize the Helen Bass Williams Academic Success Center. “It’s a cool environment. Your SI leader is another student you can chat with and get advice from, not just help with the course load. It’s where I got a lot of advice about life at Purdue and learned about other majors and career paths.”

Blazing a Trail in the MLB

During undergrad, Mills aspired to work in research and development for a sportswear company, similar to her internship with Under Armour. But as she applied for full-time roles after graduation, she discovered a deeper passion for improving human movement, not just designing products for it.

“The jobs I really wanted were all biomechanics-adjacent. That’s when I learned about the field,” shares Mills. “I did a lot of research and realized that I needed to understand the human body. That's what led me to my master's program.”

Pictured: Purdue alumna Brittany Mills poses for a graduation photo at the University of Florida.

In 2021, Mills began pursuing her Master of Science in applied physiology and kinesiology at the University of Florida. Despite having never taken an anatomy class, Mills studied hard and graduated in one year—half of the time it usually takes to complete the program. 

“If there’s one thing I learned at Purdue, it’s that just because people say you can't do something doesn't mean it's true. If you work hard enough, you can do anything.”

In 2022, Mills landed her dream job with the Washington Nationals. When asked how it feels to be the league’s first Black, female biomechanist, Mills smiles. “It’s nice to know that this space has now opened up for others. I'm the person who opened the door—thrust it open really. But whether it was me or someone else, I’m just happy it’s open now, and I hope it inspires others.”

Taking the Next Giant Leap in Biomechanics

Mills believes baseball is just the beginning of the biomechanics boom. “MLB is one of the only professional sports groups with biomechanists on staff. But it’s just a matter of time until the field expands into other leagues.” 

While Mills innovates baseball biomechanics, Purdue faculty members Shirley Rietdyk and Satyajit Ambike are also making huge strides in the field.

“In the Purdue Biomechanics Lab, our goal is to help people with impairments related to aging or conditions like Parkinson’s disease maintain safe and balanced movement,” shares Dr. Rietdyk. “This helps them live independently for longer and safely complete daily tasks like putting away groceries.”

Researchers in the Purdue Biomechanics Lab assist a subject while simulating their movements on a computer. Photo courtesy of Purdue Biomechanics Lab.

Pictured: Researchers in the Purdue Biomechanics Lab assist a subject while simulating their movements on a computer. Photo courtesy of Purdue Biomechanics Lab.

By utilizing the same biomechanical principles as Mills—as well as new and innovative approaches, such as machine learning—the Purdue Biomechanics Lab is paving the way to improve quality of life for millions of Americans.

It’s clear that for biomechanics—and other revolutionary fields like it—only one thing is needed to spark innovation and change: the persistence of a Boilermaker.

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Emily Jones

Communications Specialist for Student Success Programs, 

Purdue University, 610 Purdue Mall, West Lafayette, IN 47907, (765) 494-4600

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