Gary Birch (electrical engineer)

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Gary Birch
Gary Birch 2009.jpg
Gary Birch 2009
Born (1957-10-20) 20 October 1957 (age 59)
Residence Vancouver, BC Canada
Fields Electrical Engineering
Biomedical Signal Processing
Alma mater University of Victoria
University of British Columbia
Known for Brain-Computer Interface Research
Assistive Technology
Disability Advocacy
Notable awards

Dr. Gary Birch, OC PEng[1] is a Canadian Paralympian, an expert in Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology and Executive Director of the Neil Squire Society. In 1975, Dr. Birch was involved in an automobile accident which resulted in injuries to the C6 and C7 area of his spine making him a low-level quadriplegic. He was one of the original players of Murderball (wheelchair rugby), and won several medals in the 1980 Summer Paralympics in the Netherlands. In 2008, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. He continues to champion accessibility through his Research and Development work in assistive technologies at the University of British Columbia, the Rick Hansen Institute,[2] and the Neil Squire Society.

Early and academic life[edit]

Born October 20, 1957, Gary Birch grew up in Calgary, Alberta. Dr. Birch was set to begin studying Engineering at the University of Calgary in 1975 when he was involved in a motor vehicle accident that made him a quadriplegic. It took 4 months of acute care and 4 months of rehabilitation at the G.F. Strong Centre in Vancouver for Dr. Birch to begin adjusting to his new life in a wheelchair. In the autumn of 1976, he enrolled in the Pre-Engineering program at the University of Victoria. He earned his B.A. Sc. in Electrical Engineering in 1983, and in 1988 received a Doctorate in Electrical Engineering (Biomedical Signal Processing), from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Dr. Birch competed in the 1980 Summer Paralympics in the Netherlands. There he won the silver medal in the 60m wheelchair race and two bronze medals in swimming, in the 25m backstroke and in the 3 x 25m freestyle relay.[3][4][5] Gary was also one of the first participants in Wheelchair Rugby.

In 1982, while attending a lecture at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Birch met a man who would strongly influence the next 30 years of his life, Bill Cameron (Founder, Neil Squire Society). Mr. Cameron had been working with his relative, a high level quadriplegic named Neil Squire, to develop a Morse code based, sip-and-puff communication system for people with severe physical disabilities. Dr. Birch was interested in the emerging technology and knew he wanted to be a part of it. He and another student taught Neil Squire to communicate on the computer by using the sip-and-puff technique. Upon Squire's death in 1984, Cameron formally incorporated the Neil Squire Society. Dr. Birch became its chair and joined the society on a full-time basis when he completed graduate school.[6]

It was at that time that Dr. Birch began work on his Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) project.[7][8][9] He chose to research the use of Electroencephalography (EEG) signals from the brain because he felt it would be the most direct type of signal and would be the best form of control for someone with a severe disability.

Recent achievements[edit]

In 1994, Dr. Birch became the Executive Director of the Neil Squire Society.[10] Under his watch, the Society continues to empower Canadians with physical disabilities using technology, knowledge, and passion. He is also currently an Adjunct Professor at both the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department of the University of British Columbia,[11] and at the Gerontology Department of Simon Fraser University.

Dr. Birch was inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame in 1998 by the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons for extraordinary contributions to enriching the quality of life for people with disabilities. He was also awarded the British Columbia Paraplegic Association’s Leadership Award.

The University of British Columbia Alumni Association honored Dr. Birch with a Global Citizen Award in 2009.[12] The award recognizes UBC graduates who have made a significant contribution to the betterment of the global community through one or more of the following: research initiatives, teaching, social, cultural or artistic innovation, healthcare, economic development, human rights and environmental protection.

On 23 October 2008, Dr. Birch was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honor for lifetime achievement, for his work with the Neil Squire Society. Governor General Michaëlle Jean invested him into the Order on April 7, 2010, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. In 2012, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.[13] In 2016, he was awarded the Dean's Medal of Distinction from the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Applied Science.[14]

On 14–16 June 2016, Dr. Birch spoke and co-chaired a roundtable at the 9th session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.


External links[edit]