Biology and Physics Major
Sarah West, a Biology and Physics double major, spent much of her
summer playing video games. But she was not playing games; instead she
was getting down to business. "I wanted to study the impact of force on
the articular cartilage of the knee," she says.
West, who was accepted to the Knox Rush Early Admission Program as a sophomore, says she is interested in biomechanics. In her summer research and subsequent honors project, she is focusing on the intricacies of the knee. "I wanted to narrow my focus to the articular cartilage, but I can't cut a knee open or perform an MRI, so I needed a way to get the data."
West says she wanted to study the knees of football players who notoriously put intense loads on their knees everyday. "A lot of them get osteoarthritis later in life from the impact on the cartilage while they played the sport. It eventually breaks down and gets all the way to the bone and is quite painful. Your body is not meant to do that. I am interested in seeing if there is a way to reduce occurrences of degradation of the cartilage."
She developed a way to write computer code using a Wii Fit balance board and gaming system. She worked with Professors Chuck Schulz in physics and Judy Thorn in biology, as well as Scott Sunderland from athletics.
Her success started with an understanding of what makes the Wii so revolutionary. Video games, sometimes regarded as mindless entertainment for the lethargic, are proving to be an effective, new tool in rehabilitation exercises.
Rather than just having buttons and joysticks, the Wii handset is motion-sensitive. It features an accelerometer, a device that accurately records how fast it is traveling, in three dimensions: backwards and forwards, up and down, left and right and rotating in any direction. There is a wireless communication that feeds all this data to the console. The Wii handset initially was intended to play the role of a tennis racket or golf club as people swing it around their living rooms to hit the perfect shot. West thought, "what if it could be used to feed information into a computer? All she would need is a Wii controller and a computer capable of using a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard.
"I found a way to monitor the force of impact on the knee as football players perform typical football motions. I wanted to get a protocol going for preventative care. If we can see that they are doing something bad, maybe we can correct it before they have an injury that would cause a problem."
She spent the summer getting a connection between the Wii and the computer. "This way I can get the center mass of the athlete as he runs over the platform. I can capture the forces and the different directions of movement. It was really time consuming, but it works pretty well."
The other part of West's project involved a good deal of construction. Building pressure-treated platforms with a ramp, West created a sod based surface that the athletes used. "So, you can run these tests in any weather. It is real life and not isolated in the lab," she says.
West is compiling data throughout the football season. She is also soliciting feedback from the athletes about intensity and frequency of their knee pain. "I have already seen a difference from pre-season to mid-season, and I will take another survey in post season. I will have a better idea then."
Life After Knox
During her first year at Knox as a swimmer, West sustained a shoulder injury. "I spent a lot of time in the training room during my recovery. The care and support from the student trainers and athletic trainers were amazing." In her sophomore year, West started working in the training room and enjoyed being there for the athletes. She says it was a big part of her decision to pursue medical school. Her future plans are in sports medicine, and she says she is glad she had some impact and maybe created something to help people in the long run.
Her summer research was funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) summer scholarship.
"This summer was a great experience, but there were times I wondered what I was thinking. But, at the same time, I don't think other colleges are able to do this at the undergraduate level."
The ability to take classes and pursue outside interests is what West says she most admires about the curriculum at Knox. "The freedom to do what you want, but I will take that with me. The attitude of ‘if you aren't given an answer, then find one. An answer exists out there - make it happen."