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A Day in the Life: Stephen Himmelberg ’17 Day in the Life, Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner, UNC-Chapel Hill's Matthew Gfeller Center for Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury

“My main focus on this project was to administer clinical tests to the athletes throughout the summer, gathering data and compiling it as part of an NCAA-Department of Defense Study involving over 25 universities.”

Spending a summer at UNC’s Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center was a great opportunity, and I was lucky to have been given a chance to work with both researchers and athletes at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. While working there I was given two interesting and unique projects to assist on. The first dealt with establishing baseline cognitive, physical and behavioral performance for all of the athletes at UNC. After an athlete has a concussion, a variety of symptoms can present, so it is important to know how each individual athlete normally feels and functions prior to any traumatic brain injury. In order to gain a full picture of an athlete’s health, they’re first given a computer test that measures reaction time, memory, reasoning and a host of other executive functioning skills. Along with the computer-based test, athletes are given a sensory organization test that looks at their ability to process and react to visual stimuli while maintaining their balance. These two tests are combined with several questionnaires that help athletes relay their physical symptoms, feelings and emotions. Blood is also drawn from each athlete for comparison purposes because a brain injury results in the release of specific biomarkers. These biomarkers are proteins in the blood which can indicate the level of swelling in the brain as well as signal when an athlete is ready to return to play after levels of certain proteins drop. My main focus on this project was to administer clinical tests to the athletes throughout the summer, gathering data and compiling it as part of an NCAA-Department of Defense Study involving over 25 universities. The project will be ongoing for the next few years and is focused on gaining a better understanding of concussion injuries, with the hope of improving safety and health in the athletic and military settings.

The second project I helped on revolved around looking at new methods of post-concussion recovery. It is often thought that strict rest is the best and only way to heal a concussion, but this thought is somewhat outdated. Currently, almost all other physical injuries are treated through rehabilitation involving movement and exercise as soon as possible. The Gfeller Center has started investigating the utility of active rehabilitation following concussions to see if athletes heal more quickly and efficiently through a variety of exercise methods. Obviously it’s unethical (and illegal) to induce concussions in a clinical setting in order to collect this information, so we focused mainly on gathering data on how non-concussion (control) subjects responded to an exercise regimen that will then be compared to athletes who sustain a concussion. It will take a while for enough people to sustain concussions naturally and be tested at the Gfeller Center, so this project is still ongoing.

I would like to give a special thanks to the following people for letting me work alongside them this summer: Dr. Guskiewicz, who is founder and co-director of the Gfeller Center; Corey Rodrigo, who is site coordinator for the NCAA-DoD Study; and Liz Teel, who is currently writing her dissertation on post-concussion exercise as rehabilitation. This was an amazing opportunity for which I am very thankful.

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Hometown: Chapel Hill, N.C.

Major: Biology

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Varsity Basketball
  • Maury River Middle School Reading Tutor
  • First-Year Orientation Committee

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • Research at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Lineberger Cancer Center looking at renal cell carcinoma and its various tumorigenic pathways.
  • Clinical research at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Matthew Gfeller Center for Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury trying to improve concussion treatment, prevention, and recognition.

Why did you apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant? I applied for the grant in order to get a chance to work hands-on in the field of sports medicine. Internships in this field tend to be hard to come by and rarely involve stipends, so this grant afforded me an opportunity to pursue something I am passionate about rather than work at a less meaningful summer job.

How does your work under the grant apply to your studies at W&L? I became a biology major because I was interested in learning about the human body in the hopes of pursuing a career in medicine. This grant allowed me to work in the field of science while also teaching me a lot about the brain and how the brain and body respond together after a traumatic head injury.


What was the most unexpected aspect of your grant experience? Going into the internship, I thought I would be doing a lot of behind the scenes work like data entry, since I would only be there for the summer. While I did do a lot of data entry, my supervisors also really let me get involved in administering a lot of the one-on-one clinical tests to the UNC athletes, which was surprising.

Post-Graduation Plans: I just finished applying to medical school, so hopefully I’ll be enrolling somewhere the fall after graduation.

Favorite Class: Modern Dance. I take a lot of classes involving science and math as a biology major and I enjoy a lot of them. Modern dance was a unique class that was so unlike all the other classes I’d taken, and it was a refreshing change. It allowed me to be expressive, and while I’ve never really considered myself an artist of any kind, I can say that this class made it fun and interesting.