Growing the next generation of science stars |

Growing the next generation of science stars

Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy's Paula Cooper designed an exercise program to help alleviate back pain, especially among ski racers and athletes. Cooper participated in a Steadman Philippon Research Institute science club program.
Randy Wyrick| |

About Steadman Philippon Research Institute

To learn more about the Steadman Philippon Research Institute and its school-related programs, go to

VAIL — Sure, the Steadman Philippon Research Institute attracts physicians and scientists from all around the world. Now, SPRI is growing their own.

The Institute’s Education and Public Outreach Committee — EPOC, chaired by Senenne Philippon — began a program to inspire elementary, middle and high school students to become more involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Four teams of local high school students — SPRI’s Science Club — spent a year doing research, working with mentor scientists and preparing presentations.

Science Club members get certificates and T-shirts, which is good, and cash for college, which is better.

Backpacks and backs

Support Local Journalism

Battle Mountain’s Christian Apps and Natalie Arroyo were up first. Apps had been to the SPRI on several occasions, usually as a patient, and gave a shout out to Dr. Hackett, who has repeatedly put his shoulder back together.

Skiing is 5,000 years old, but some of the questions are new. Such as:

“Can wearing a backpack while skiing or snowboarding change your balance and cause injuries?”

One of their teachers hurt himself skiing and blamed his backpack. They set about seeing if he was right.

There is a correlation, they learned, but that doesn’t mean the backpack caused it. It also depends on what you were doing and where you were doing it, they said.

As part of their research they used the Wii Fit balance board on a simulated ski race course, which was entertaining because they got to watch 24 classmates crash and burn wearing backpacks and not wearing backpacks.

Nobody said research isn’t fun.

They discovered two things:

Their backpack times were generally slower.

There’s a higher correlation of injury.

Femur failures

Vail Christian’s Johnny Barron and Rachel Keith studied stress fractures in the proximal femur.

It happens more often than you think, and can end badly.

Bo Jackson, for example, started with a stress fracture. It ended in disaster, as these cases sometimes do.

Keith is a dancer and said hip problems are common. Johnny’s mother was a dancer in China when she was a child, and now she has hip problems.

“This was a very personal experiment for me,” Barron said.

Keith and Barron focused on long distance runners because they tend to overuse everything.

“Runners are stubborn people and will keep running even when they’re injured,” Barron said.

There’s a proper running form and doing it badly — especially on hard surfaces — will cause injuries. Refusing to deal with an injury will make that injury worse, they found.

“We live in an active valley, and when people get hurt they go back to their activity too quickly,” Barron said.

The first treatment is rest.

“Rest isn’t what people want to do,” Barron said.

“Walk or jog lightly. Better yet, do aqua therapy. That’s a great way for people to rehabilitate,” Keith said.

For you Old Schoolers, you can tape it, but you still have to give yourself time to heal.

Painkillers are OK, but don’t overdo it.

“When your body is telling you it’s hurt, believe it,” Barron said.

Dr. Marc Philippon, one of the world’s foremost hip surgeons, wandered into the room during the presentations.

Nutrition also plays a role, he said.

“They think the lighter they are, the faster they’ll run,” Philippon said. “Not necessarily.”

Dr. John Feagin worked with the military for years, where he said malnutrition kept rearing its head.

“The cost to the military of a stress fracture is huge. It frightened the military into changing what it was doing, and allowing injuries, especially stress fractures to heal,” Feagin said.

How long it takes to heal – rest – depends on how hurt you are, and whether you’ve done this before.

Generally speaking, you’re looking at a couple months, Barron said.

Some of their research suggested biking, but more suggested aqua therapy.

Curing shin splints

Vail Mountain School’s Dylan Cunningham and Oliver Presso came up with a gadget to deal with Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome — shin splints.

It’s an overuse injury, and it’s painful and frustrating.

You get shin splints from repetitive activity on hard surfaces, such as running on a road or track.

One study tested 230 high school runners over three years; 102 got them, and 16 got them more than once.

Another study followed 124 Naval recruits, and they all suffered shin splints — 84 men and 40 women.

There are lots of treatments. You can do tape and ice yourself, so that’s where Presso and Cunningham focused.

There are a couple ways to tape it. Arch supports and orthotics also help, as do calf or shin supports.

Still, neither gave them what they wanted, so they invented their own gadget, the Dyliver Sleeve.

They started with all sorts of ideas, and simplified it to an orthopedic sock with a couple Velcro sleeves.

“People don’t want to stop running, and could possibly continue with this device, Cunningham said. “The goal is to allow them to recover while they’re still working.”

Among other things, they learned that sewing thick Velcro strips is hard.

Beating back pain

Paula Cooper attends Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, where she’s a halfpipe skier.

She concentrated on back pain prevention in competitive skiers, because she’s a competitive skier who has it, and so do most of her friends. Her’s started in middle school.

Her two older sisters were ski racers, and have back pain.

“Most VSSA competitors end up with some level of it,” she said.

There wasn’t a lot of research because elite competitive is such a small world, she said.

Of her fellow VSSA students, about a quarter miss training because of back pain, and most end up in physical therapy. The problems stem from doing exercises incorrectly, or overwork, she said.

“Part of it is doing your exercises properly,” she said.

Cooper came up with her “Around the World” exercise plan. It takes two or three minutes a couple times a day, and helps eliminate back pain and improve strength.

About EPOC

The three-tiered program has been developed in partnership with the Eagle County School District, Vail Mountain School and Vail Christian Academy.

During the school year, four high schools, three middle schools, and four elementary schools participated in various EPOC programs.

Participating high school students commit to a minimum of two hours per week to their science projects, and SPRI research scientists are available throughout the year to mentor the students. The student teams are required to develop research timelines, submit progress reports and make a final report or presentation. Throughout the year, Science Club members get to attend SPRI research lectures.

Three SPRI laboratory tour days are set aside each year, and as many as 80 fifth-graders participate in the tours in a single day, said Megan Bryant, marketing coordinator for the Steadman Clinic.

“Having world-class research scientists as a sounding board really gives the students a sense of validation and pride,” said Gabe Scherzer, a Vail Mountain School science teacher.

Support Local Journalism