The Other 60 Percent

UNC prof studies concussions in young athletes

Riddell is embedding sensors in its helmets to help researchers study which types of hits are most likely to result in concussion.

Igor Szczyrba’s world is one of abstract mathematical formulae and complex software, not high school locker rooms and football sidelines. Yet from his research may come one key to keeping young athletes safe.

Szczyrba (pronounced “Sturba”) is a professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Northern Colorado and, for the past 10 years, his research has focused on computer modeling of traumatic brain injuries.

Last week, at a supercomputing conference in New Orleans, Intel, working with football helmet manufacturer Riddell, announced that Szczyrba is among a group of researchers whose modeling will be used to predict what sort of on-field hits are most likely to produce dangerous head injuries, and to suggest in which part of the brain such injuries might occur.

“We want to develop some brain injury criteria,” said Szczyrba, who is collaborating with his son, software engineer Rafal Szczyrba, and Martin Burtscher, an associate professor at Texas State University in San Marcos who received his doctorate in computer science from the University of Colorado in 2000.

A better way to detect concussions

“I’m not a physician but my understanding is that right now, at high school and university football games, if a player takes a blow to the head, the coach asks him some questions, based on a questionnaire,” Szczyrba said. “And based on their answers they decide if there’s a chance there’s a concussion.  But we want to do more.

“If it’s a minor concussion, they might not even know it. The problem with minor brain injuries is that they may not be immediately apparent. A brain hematoma may start very slowly, and even if you do an MRI, it might not show up immediately. You cannot judge immediately whether there’s been a concussion based on the behavior of a football player. That’s why it’s important to help physicians predict the probability of an injury.”

Igor Szczyrba is a UNC math professor who has spent the past 10 years researching computer modeling of traumatic brain injuries.

The modeling to be done by Szczyrba and his colleagues will involve data collected from sensors placed inside football helmets. These sensors will measure the acceleration or movement of a player’s head inside the helmet during a hit.

Research indicates that the most dangerous brain injuries appear when the head rotates on the neck. By analyzing the angle and force of each hit, and comparing those hits that cause concussions to those that do not, researchers may be able not only to design helmets that provide better protection, but also imbed chips in those helmets that can alert coaches and physicians when a player has taken a potentially dangerous hit.

“In the past we’ve tried to do similar studies on car accidents,” Szczyrba said. “You can estimate the acceleration of the car, the acceleration of the body, especially the head, but it’s very imprecise because you cannot tell how a body is moving in the car. This is the first time we’re getting the data from football helmets, and data from cars is not as good as data from helmets.”

Szczyrba has just received the first set of data. He hopes that within a year, he and his colleagues will have be able to produce some definitive findings.

Legislation likely to be introduced in Colorado

Meanwhile, expect concussions and how they are treated in school-age athletes to become an increasingly hot topic in Colorado. At least one major conference on the topic is planned for Denver in February, and officials from a number of agencies that deal with brain injuries are working to draft legislation they hope will be introduced in the upcoming Colorado General Assembly.

“Already there are half a dozen states where such legislation has passed or is pending, so it’s not just Colorado,” said Gavin Attwood, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Colorado. “Part of that wave is because there has been increased research around the effects of concussion on young brains. The brains of high school athletes heal a lot slower than adults. I can’t give you a reason why, but they do.

“The other thing that’s being observed is that if you have several concussions, there can be longterm cognitive issues for the students,” Attwood said. “It could be a lack of concentration, or irritability or depression. So what the country is say is, ‘Hey, we love that our youth play sports and in no way are we trying to put a stop to that, but we’ve got to manage concussions carefully. Otherwise, these kids will potentially have cognitive issues later in life.”

The exact number of sports-related concussions suffered by Colorado students annually isn’t known, but based on extrapolation from national data, officials estimate somewhere between 1,349 and 2,510 such concussions each year that result in emergency room visits.

But the actual number is likely far greater, since many more injured youngsters never make it to the emergency room, and often never receive any sort of treatment at all.

Attwood said the proposed legislation in Colorado will mostly likely address three issues: mandatory education about concussions for all coaches, even volunteer coaches; mandatory removal from the field of play for young athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion; and prohibition from returning to play without the approval of a medical professional with training in treating concussions.

Conference to bring educators, parents, health professionals together

The Brain Injury Association will host a conference, “When Mild Traumatic Brain Injury is Not Really Mild,” on Feb. 4 in Denver. Keynote speaker will be Dr. Ron Savage, chairman and co-founder of the International Pediatric Brain Injury Society and “the guru of all things about disability in the school system,” said Rhonda Rickett, coordinator of the event. “He built the model for brining parents and schools together as very direct partners in educating students with disabilities,” she said.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
The REAP Project (Reduce, Educate, Accommodate, Pace) is a community-based model for concussion management developed in Colorado.

Also speaking will be Dr. Karen McAvoy, a licensed child psychologist and director of the Center for Concussion at the Rocky Mountain Youth Sports Medicine Institute. From 2004 to 2007, McAvoy was manager of a Centers for Disease Control study on concussion in high school athletes. The researchers followed 92 student athletes with concussions over three years.

Based on that study, McAvoy developed the REAP Project (Reduce, Educate, Accommoate, Pace), a model program for concussion management that health officials hope will be adopted throughout Colorado. During its pilot 2009-10 school year, when it was in place in four Colorado school districts, the REAP project received more than 150 referrals of athletes treated in emergency rooms for concussion. The families of those injured athletes were quickly contacted by REAP so that parents could know what to look for and how to gradually ease the youngsters back into activity without further harm or risk.

For more information

To read more about Szczyrba’s Traumatic Brain Injury research and to see animated computer models, go here and select “animations.”

To see a simulation of a collision between football players and how their heads rotate, see this article in

Read the latest recommendations for enhancing athlete safety, released in September by the Colorado Youth Sports Concussions Special Interest Group,

after parkland

‘We’re not kidding about this,’ says one teen leader of Memphis march on gun violence

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students in Indianapolis participate in the National School Walkout on March 14. This Saturday, students in the Memphis area will join a related March for Our Lives.

Memphis students were on spring break when this month’s national school walkout against gun violence happened, but 13-year-old Simran Bains is not going to miss her chance to publicly speak her mind.

PHOTO: Simran Bains
Eighth-grader Simran Bains is a student leader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville.

An eighth-grader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville, which is on the outskirts of Memphis, Simran is one of more than a dozen teenagers planning this Saturday’s March for Our Lives in Memphis.

She believes the student drive to protest gun violence following last month’s shooting of 17 people in Parkland, Florida, will not end anytime soon. Saturday’s march is part of a national movement organized by Parkland students to keep the conversation going about gun violence.

“I think this moment is different,” Simran said. “For every school shooting I can remember, it’s the same cycle. People are sad and shocked, but nothing ever changes.”

Students and other supporters will walk to the National Civil Rights Museum from Clayborn Temple, the historic assembling area for civil rights marches of the 1960s.

We spoke with Simran about what this march means to her and what she hopes Memphis learns from it. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

Why are you participating in Saturday’s march?

For me, I’ve always been a little louder than my peers. I’ve always been one to go on a tangent or two. When I heard about the march from a friend, it really stood out to me because it’s being organized by people my age. I have never seen people this young doing stuff like this. It was inspiring. There’s this perception in society that there’s a gun problem in America and that’s how the world will always be. But here, I’m seeing young people, who are the future of America, changing the world, and I wanted to be a part of that.

What message do you hope to send?

I hope people hear that even though we’re young, we’re not kidding about this, and we won’t back down. I want people in Shelby County to care more about this issue and listen to us. I hope people recognize that even if they have a right to protection, no one should have to fear for their life while receiving a public education. This is a serious issue. If we don’t do something, it only gets worse from here.

But I also hope we can broaden the conversation beyond school shootings. We have one of the highest gun homicide rates in the world, one of the highest suicide-by-gun rates in the world. We’re talking about people killing themselves, not just people killing people. Suicide and homicide aren’t often brought into this conversation. I hope that changes in Memphis.

I also want the march to remind us that we can’t become desensitized to gun violence. Whenever we read that someone was shot, we don’t always think how somebody just lost one of their own. That person will have to go home to empty bedrooms.

What specifically would you like to see happen in Tennessee?

I’m personally not one to advocate for the total removal of guns. I think that’s sometimes an assumption of people who are against protests like March for Our Lives. They assume we want to take all guns away. That’s not necessarily true. But I want a written exam to purchase a gun, like in Japan. I also want a longer wait time when you purchase a gun. I don’t think you should be able to walk into a gun shop and walk out the same day with a weapon. School shootings, or gun violence in general, can often be a spur-of-the-moment decision. What if the person had to wait a few days, weeks or months before they actually got that gun? Would they still feel the same way they did when they first went to buy the gun?

Have you or your family or your friends ever been personally touched by gun violence?

My family has never been a gun family. My parents are immigrants from India, and it’s just never been a thing for us. Going to school where I do, there’s a lot of political viewpoints. Some people are really pro owning guns, some are really against. And it’s an interesting place to talk about this. But also, I’ve gotten to know people from different backgrounds. I know people in Memphis and areas surrounding it who have lost someone to guns. I’ve known people who have lost loved ones to guns in homicides or gang violence.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”