Tumble leads to academic success for Columbia River student

Gymnast’s research on injury lands her trip to international science fair

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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photoColumbia River High School’s Grace Mammarella is shown with her award-winning project that correlates an increase in knee injuries in female athletes during their menstrual cycles. She has advanced to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair this May in Pittsburgh.

(/The Columbian)

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A tumble off the balance beam cost Grace Mammarella the chance to perform at state for Columbia River High’s gymnastics team her junior and senior years.

But, in return, the anterior cruciate ligament injury she suffered provided her the inspiration for a project that landed her a trip to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair this May in Pittsburgh.

Mammarella, 17, earned entry to the competition by winning the Southwest Washington Science and Engineering Fair on March 3 with a project chronicling the changes women’s knee ligaments undergo during their menstrual cycle. She won the overall competition, besting 95 other competitors from four local high schools.

Changes in the laxity, or looseness, of knee ligaments during the menstrual cycle, Mammarella’s research proved, make women athletes more susceptible to knee injuries.

She experienced the phenomenon firsthand during her junior season.

During a practice routine, she hit her knee on the balance beam. She could not walk afterward but thought the pain would go away. It did not.

She underwent surgery to repair her torn left ACL. The injury robbed her of the opportunity to perform again at state, as she had during her freshman and sophomore years.

“It was a very hard experience,” Mammarella said. “That’s what makes me so passionate about this topic.”

Mammarella tested the knee ligaments of 10 female friends for two months. She did not test anyone who played sports because they would likely have pre-existing injuries.

She used a homemade device made of cardboard, duct tape and Velcro to test four major knee ligaments -- ACL, medial collateral ligament (MCL), lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) -- for their estrogen and progesterone levels. She attached the device to the subject’s femur and then, using marking pens, traced the laxity results on graphing paper.

The higher hormone levels are, the more injury-prone women athletes are, she noted.

Mammarella’s ability to build and design things makes her stand out, said Kelly Cameron, an International Baccalaureate biology teacher at Columbia River High.

“She can do so many things,” said Cameron, who is also sponsor of the school’s Science Olympiad club. “She has that creative aspect. She’s a natural engineer.”

Mammarella will graduate with full International Baccalaureate honors this spring -- an honor only 30 Columbia River students will receive this year, Cameron said.

The senior is co-president of the school’s Science Olympiad and also plays violin in its orchestra. She is considering studying engineering or biology/pre-med at college. Her three top choices are Seattle Pacific University, University of Washington and University of British Columbia.

Before she takes that step, there are more studies to be done and presentations to be made.

She will make a PowerPoint presentation on her knee laxity project at the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium on March 15 in Seattle.

Then, her focus shifts to Pittsburgh. She plans to continue testing her friends to make her research stronger.

Her left knee, meanwhile, has regained its old strength. She performed once in competition on the balance beam this season -- a feat that, her mother Amy noted, was “an example of her mental strength and courage.”

Mammarella did so with a knee brace. Perhaps something so simple, when used at specific times, can stamp out many knee injuries in women’s athletics.

“It may very well be worth it to wear such a small brace if it prevents such a major injury,” Mammarella said.