A running sneaker is like a layer cake. With each stratum of rubber, foam, plastic, and textile, the shoe is carefully planned, built, and tested to craft an object that can make anyone an athlete. Every layer is essential; every layer builds on the previous.
The beauty of this design is part of why Geng Luo is obsessed with sneakers. It also happens to be a pretty good metaphor for how his own career has unfolded. A self-proclaimed “sneakerhead” since he was a kid, it has always been his dream to be part of the shoe creation team at Nike. And after a series of carefully orchestrated steps—layers, if you will—here he is today, a senior biomechanics researcher at the legendary athletics company.
His experience isn’t the norm—particularly today and particularly among scientists, whose careers are often shaped by surprising twists and opportunities that take them to places they never expected. But for Luo, dedication, planning, complete forthrightness, and at least a little bit of luck got him exactly where he wanted to go from the very beginning.
A budding sneakerhead
When an 11-year-old Luo first saw Nike Air sneakers in his hometown of Tianjin, China, in the 1990s, it was love at first sight. His heart was stolen by both the shoe’s looks and its underlying science and engineering. “I remember going to retail stores and seeing the big Nike Air bubble inside the shoes, and thinking, ‘Wow, that is crazy technology,’” he recalls. Gripped by the kicks, at times he spent more time in school drawing pictures of sneakers than paying attention in class. By the time he got to high school, “it became more and more clear to me this is something I want to pursue,” he says. He scoured the internet for resources about sneakers and even created his own sneaker website translating English sneaker reviews into Chinese to “spread and share sneaker technology and culture” in his home country.
When he discovered an interview with the lead Air Jordan designer at Nike, Wilson Smith, on a U.S.-based sneaker review website, Luo felt like he hit the jackpot. “I emailed the website in super-broken English and said, ‘I have this desire and drive to pursue a career in sneaker design but I don’t know how to do it,’” he says. The webhost forwarded the email to Smith, who to Luo’s surprise responded. “He was so kind and was very detailed about how I can pursue this career,” Luo recalls. “He said to focus on the function part, and study something like industrial design or industrial engineering. Think about how people move.”
First, though, Luo made his own move—to North America, strategically chosen to be close to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. He followed Smith’s advice and pursued a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, which was well known for its research in gait mechanics. When he arrived, he immediately inquired about conducting research to build his skill set and make him marketable for jobs. He asked anyone who would listen, “Who are the professors I need to work with?” explaining that he knew that he wanted to work for a shoe company one day. His upfront declaration of his intentions landed him a volunteer role in the biomechanics laboratory, where he gained experience in measuring how the human body moves as part of a study investigating how elderly drivers behave in their vehicles. He wasn’t working with shoes yet, but this research experience was nonetheless an essential foundation for his layer-cake career.
As he worked through his undergrad studies, he made his laser-focus on getting a job in Nike’s research division clear to his professors, who advised him that his next step should be a Ph.D. So, he enrolled as a doctoral student in the footwear biomechanics group at the University of Calgary, which is well known for its industry connections. There, he finally got to do research on footwear for the first time. One of his earliest projects centered on how basketball athletes’ movement and performance change depending on the stiffness of their shoes. Luo was smitten. “It made me appreciate how profound it is to work on biomechanics, because it is not purely mechanics; the bio part plays a huge role.”
His dissertation work, in which he studied the biomechanical factors that get in the way of a runner’s ability to reach their maximum possible speed when they’re running along a curve (like on a track), also radically changed his thinking. “Before my thesis, I would start from the shoe and then move to the human body,” he explains. “My thesis allowed me to think about the fundamental principles of human movement first, and then identify an athlete’s problem to solve with footwear. This was the most important thing I learned. It was huge.”
While Luo was a grad student, he also participated in a project sponsored by Adidas to test prototypes of sprinting shoes that were later used in the 2012 Olympics in London. “It’s extremely important to have that industry perspective,” he says of his experience at Calgary, which has relationships with various footwear manufacturers. “Curiosity is important, but it’s not necessarily transferable to an industry setting.” For the type of applied research conducted in industry, researchers need to consider factors like what will be required to implement a laboratory innovation in a product to go to market, he explains. “I was lucky to learn this.”
Just do it
The next layer for Luo’s career was obvious: Get a job at Nike. Perhaps this seems easier said than done, but Luo’s efforts up to that point—including his foundation in kinesiology, the various industry-driven projects he had made a point of engaging in, and his consistent communication to his colleagues and advisers that he wanted to work there—put him in a strong position. Moreover, relatively early in Luo’s graduate training, his supervisor—to whom Luo had been clear about his career aspirations from the beginning—introduced him to Matt Nurse, now the vice president of the Nike Explore Team Sport Research Lab, who began working at the company approximately a decade earlier after earning his Ph.D. from the same Calgary department in which Luo was a student. “Early on, I heard about how talented Geng was,” recalls Nurse, who today is Luo’s boss. “Not only was he a great scientist, but he was creative, ambitious, and willing to try new things—all the ingredients for a great innovator. We stayed in touch during his graduate work, with a notion that he might join us when he finished.”
So, Luo seemed to be in good shape to put the next layer on his career. Perhaps the finishing touch occurred toward the end of his Ph.D., when he entered and won a prestigious $25,000 grad school competition that Nike sponsored for footwear research, which included presenting his work at a conference for Nike researchers. “This was a really important bridge between … grad school and me coming to Nike,” he says. With his Ph.D. finish line in sight, Luo discovered that Nurse’s group was growing and had openings for new researchers. “That was my dream job,” says Luo. “I was very clear with Matt about that.”
Not long after Luo landed his job at Nike in 2013, Luo told Nurse about the original email he had sent to Wilson. Nurse exclaimed that Wilson worked directly across the hall, so Luo dug up the email, printed it out, and took it to Wilson—who surprised Luo again by recognizing it. “We were both almost in tears,” Luo says. Not long after, Luo found out that the webhost who had forwarded the email to Wilson also worked at Nike, down the hall, as the director of running innovation. “So, it came full circle,” Luo reflects.
Today, Luo works with a worldwide slate of experts with backgrounds as diverse as materials science, industrial engineering, and even perception science to “transfer knowledge into actionable ideas and to apply scientific insight into the products,” he says. From fashioning advanced foam composites and carbon fiber plates that ensure more efficient, lighter, better constructed footwear to enhancing the engineered upper part of a shoe to improve the sneaker’s fit, Luo and his colleagues leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of a shoe that will improve the wearer’s performance. “He starts from a point of possibility, rather than pessimism,” Nurse says. “He understands the scientific process, but doesn’t let it limit his creative potential.”
Last spring, Luo served as a key player on Breaking2, Nike’s effort to break the fabled 2-hour barrier for running a marathon. In particular, he was instrumental in conceiving the curved carbon fiber plate that goes in the shoe’s footbed and orchestrating how it interacts with the protective foam in the shoe’s base. When he saw that it improved the overall running economy of those wearing them by 4%, “I freaked out,” Luo says. The company went on to name the shoe the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%.
As for the next layer in Luo’s career cake, he expects to stay on track for bigger opportunities within Nike. He acknowledges that his career route is unusual, and even though it’s clear how each step paved the way to the next, it still surprises him sometimes. “Every day I look at where I am and I feel I’m not supposed to be here,” he says. “I know how I got here, but it just feels like it was a low probability. I’m extremely grateful for it.” He is also quick to thank the advisers, peers, and others who supported him. “I was so lucky along the way; so many people helped,” he says.
But ultimately, Luo’s career advice is simple: Just do it. “If you believe in something, stick to it. If you are passionate, there will be a lot of people around you who will help you along the way. Focus on the thing you are passionate about and be obsessed with that. That’s all that matters.”