Steadman Philippon Research Institute science club creates young experts |

Steadman Philippon Research Institute science club creates young experts

High school students employ state of the art facilities, staff specialists, in research projects

Alexa Anderson of Vail Mountain School presents on "Muscle Imbalance in Alpine and Nordic Skiers" for her final presentation of the Steadman Philippon Research Institute Education and Public Outreach Committee Science Club Wednesday, April 10, at Vail Health Hospital in Vail. Anderson's partner was not able to make it so she did it solo.
Chris Dillmann |

Subject matter experts aren’t easily fazed by the difficult questions related to their field.

Travis Turnbull, with the biomedical engineering department at the Steadman Philippon Research Institute said he was reminded of that fact after watching local students present their semester-long science projects to his colleagues on April 10.

Developing that kind of expertise in young minds has become Turnbull’s passion over the past few years, after the research institute’s Education and Public Outreach Committee welcomed the community into their labs through the formation of a local science club eight years ago.

From left, Isabelle Richie, Catherine Maslan, Samantha Lathram, Emma Birtwhistle, David Ross, Olivia Pyke, Alexa Anderson, Kaitlin Medina and Joslin Blair present certificates of completion for the research studies they conducted over the last semester. The students attend local high schools and were selected for the Steadman Philippon Research Institute EPOC Science Club.
Steadman Philippon Research Institute photo

The science club welcomes two members from five Eagle County high schools to partner up on research projects every year; in addition to having use of the facilities, the students also receive help from staff members at the research institute.

“It’s amazing to see who comes through here,” said surgical skills lab manager Ramesses Akamefula. “Not just my co-workers and physicians, but the students that they bring through here are very, very passionate.”

‘Having fun and putting in the time’

Clinical research coordinator Sara Robinson is a Vail Mountain School graduate who recently moved back to the community to work for the Steadman Philippon Research Institute. Over the last semester, she worked with Vail Mountain School students Alexa Anderson and Tim Herwig, who were selected for the club by their science teacher, Ross Sappenfield.

Sappenfield was also Robinson’s science teacher.

“It was great to reconnect and see what they’re doing at the school,” Robinson said.

While the science club wasn’t yet formed when Robinson attended Vail Mountain School, she thought back to what it might have been like to be selected.

“I think, had I have had an opportunity to participate in this program when I was in high school, I would’ve really been interested in going into biomedical engineering or math and technology,” she said.

The students Robinson worked with selected a project that you might expect for students who attend a school with the words “Vail Mountain” in it, titled “Muscle imbalance in Alpine and Nordic Skiers.”

Selecting the right project — one that matches the interests of the students who are undertaking it — has always been important to the Steadman Philippon Research Institute staff members who are working with the students in the science club.

“We give them the opportunity to look at and study whatever they want,” Akamefula said. “The biggest thing they can learn from us in that way is — no matter what you’re doing, what you’re looking at, or the amount of resources you have — at the end of the day it’s just about having fun and putting in the time.”

David Ross and Olivia Pyke of Battle Mountain High School present on “Biomechanics of Baseball Pitch in High School Baseball Players” for their final presentation of the Steadman Philippon Research Institute Education and Public Outreach Committee Science Club Wednesday, April 10, at Vail Health Hospital in Vail. The students were then asked questions by professionals in the medical field following their presentations.
Chris Dillmann |

Other projects included “Biomechanics of a Baseball Pitch in High School Baseball Players,” by David Ross and Olivia Pyke, of Battle Mountain High School; “Differentiation Potential of Adipose Derived Stem Cells from Young and Old Donors,” by Joslin Blair and Kaitlin Medina, of Eagle Valley High School; “Testing Leakage of Bone Marrow Concentrate in Intradiscal Injections,” by Emma Birtwhistle and Sam Lathram, of Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy; and “Reconstruction of the ATFL,” by Cate Maslan and Izzy Richie, of Vail Christian High School.

No softballs

After spending a semester in the lab with staff members from the Steadman Philippon Research Institute, the local students reached a level of knowledge in the fields they studied where they now feel comfortable in discussions with experts in those fields. That was evidenced by the questions they answered in their final presentations on April 10.

“Those are not softball questions,” Turnbull said. “There are no mole questions either — something planted that they know is coming.”

Turnbull said heading into the final presentations, one thing the students had not learned was the art of fielding questions from a scientific audience.

“Seeing these young students present a scientific paper, and then have to defend that paper to other scientists, as a professional, is kind of astounding,” Turnbull said. “They have done all of the background research to really understand their projects.”

Turnbull says if the institute has created what they call “subject matter experts,” then they’ve accomplished several goals through the science club.

“There’s something in each person that lights them up, that keeps them going — it’s what you love doing, so then it’s not work, and even if you’re working really hard, it’s fun,” Turnbull said. “You keep going deeper and deeper, and you become a subject matter expert.”

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