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The Office of Naval Research has invested nearly $1 million in an Old Dominion University modeling and simulation project designed to help the Navy understand the effects of physical training and predict mission readiness.

ODU experts in biomedical engineering, computational modeling and exercise science will work with two orthopedic surgeons from the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth on the project titled "Development and Validation of a Physical Performance Prediction Model."

Stacie I. Ringleb, a young mechanical engineer who came to ODU in September 2006 as a research scientist at the university's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), led the effort to get the funding and is principal investigator for the grant.

In formal language from the team's grant proposal, the three-year project "will result in a mathematical model capable of predicting combat or mission preparedness based on validated physiological, biomechanical and functional assessments." In layman's terms, the researchers want to improve the well-being, mission effectiveness and injury recovery time of military populations by tapping the latest in computational modeling capabilities, as well as lessons learned in sports medicine and athletic training.

As one expected outcome, military commanders would get computer analyses to help them identify individuals or teams who are prepared for a specific mission in a specific environment. These analyses might take into consideration not only physical fitness, strength, agility and speed, but also performance under extreme conditions-involving weather and altitude, for example.

The research team includes James A. Onate, assistant professor of exercise science and director of ODU's Sports Medicine Research Laboratory, and David Swain, professor of exercise science and director of ODU's Wellness Institute and Research Center. Dr. Marlene DeMaio and Dr. Donald Carr of the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth also are co-investigators.

"Stacie Ringleb is charting a biomechanics research path that is new for us," noted Mohammad Karim, ODU vice president for research. He said the university is pleased with the collaborations that the project "will bring forth between mechanical engineering, VMASC, health sciences and sports science."

"This award represents a significant step forward for Dr. Ringleb, VMASC and ODU in the area of medical modeling," added Michael McGinnis, executive director of VMASC. "It is tangible recognition of her reputation as one of the outstanding researchers in the United States in medical modeling and simulation. It is also an acknowledgement of advancement of the growth of the medical modeling and simulation cluster in Hampton Roads led by ODU and VMASC."

Ringleb said the project sprang from a conversation she had last fall with DeMaio, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist who directs orthopedic research at the regional medical center. DeMaio is well-known in the Navy medical community for her interest in innovations that can prevent or mitigate warfighter injuries, and speed recoveries from injuries. She has served with the Navy Expeditionary Medical Unit in the Middle East and was a prime mover in the redesign of body armor for U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Dr. DeMaio said she was interested in coming up with a way to predict mission performance," Ringleb remembered, "And I said, 'We can do that.'"

Soon thereafter, in January 2007, Ringleb saw an Office of Naval Research (ONR) request for project proposals that addressed concerns similar to DeMaio's. Ringleb, whose doctoral research at Drexel University involved mechanical properties of the ankle and who formerly worked as researcher and assistant professor in biomedical engineering for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said she studied the ONR document with Onate, but that they decided that she could not write a proposal in time to meet the deadline, which was six weeks away.

"However, then, I got a lot of encouragement at VMASC. You can say I was inspired by the people at VMASC. We decided to go for it," Ringleb said.

As it turned out, Onate already had been working with two physical training and evaluation programs, one of which had been developed by a Hampton Roads company that has contracts with the military. "So, groundwork had been laid," explained Onate, who joined ODU in 2003. Soon after he arrived, he said, he and other ODU faculty members in exercise science and physical therapy collaborated with the Navy in establishing the Military Sports Medicine Injury Research Consortium. This group has focused on strategies to limit injuries sustained during military training.

Ringleb brought her biomedical engineering background to the table, as well as the expertise at VMASC in mathematical modeling. "I did a lot of reading and asked a lot of questions, and then set to it," she said. "I quickly wrote the grant and when I finished, I thought, 'This is one of those good ideas that probably won't get funded, but at least we've started to develop the idea.'"

When the news came in April that the grant had been funded for $978,000, Ringleb was as shocked as she was excited. "This is not supposed to happen," said the researcher, who is only a decade removed from her undergraduate studies. "You're not supposed to pull a grant together at the last minute and get funding on your first try."

For the first 2½ years of the grant, the researchers will put a series of military-population groups through eight-week physical training and testing programs. Each individual will be evaluated before and after the training. The testing will delve into physical performance measures under conditions involving nutritional intake, environmental extremes, and requirements for endurance or sudden action bursts.

"What we're going to do is similar to the NFL's Combine," Onate said, referring to professional football's camp to evaluate the potential of college players who want to be drafted into the league.

He also noted that some military training in the past has been compared to triathlon training, which emphasizes endurance. "But for the military populations, we are finding that football training is the more appropriate model, emphasizing not just endurance, but also short, explosive sprints."

Carr, the orthopedic surgeon from the Naval medical center, has worked at the Methodist Sports Medicine Center in Indianapolis and attended the NFL Combine. The research of ODU's Swain has influenced exercise guidelines of the American College of Sports Medicine, and he often is interviewed by popular media, most recently for an article about vigorous exercise in the March 26, 2007, issue of Newsweek magazine.

For the ONR project dealing with combat personnel, results from physical fitness assessments and follow-up performance reviews will be used by the researchers to create computational models and simulations.

A commander might use a preliminary simulation to test how particular groupings of his personnel would perform under certain mission conditions. Variables might be mission duration, temperature, altitude and terrain. Another simulation might identify the type of training needed for a specific mission. Still another simulation just prior to mission launch could help the commander make last-minute adjustments. "We can imagine circumstances in which the commander would want to delay a mission until the temperature drops in order to improve the chances for success," Ringleb said.

Other segments of the project will evaluate the effectiveness and safety of training strategies, and the factors affecting recovery times from various injuries.

Although the current project predicts performance based upon physical evaluations, Ringleb said the dynamic modeling technique that is being used would allow cognitive and psychological evaluations to be added later.

Onate noted that the project's usefulness should extend beyond the military. "Our product could apply to factory workers," he said. "It could predict performance on an assembly line."

This article was posted on: May 7, 2007

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