Fatigue, Fractures, and Cupping, Oh My!

Well the Olympics are over, but some athletes face lingering injuries and a long road to recovery. We sat down with Samantha Burton, an Athletic Trainer in the Orthopedic Surgery Department at Baylor College of Medicine to answer some of our burning question about injuries and injury recovery.

  1. Which Olympic athletes are most prone to injury? Least prone to injury? Should parents worry about starting their future Olympians in certain sports?

Here is a great chart that illustrates the rate of injuries in Olympic sports:


With any youth sports, moderation and being a well-rounded athlete is critical.  For example, it is common to specialize in gymnastics starting as early as age 8 or 9 which is a huge indicator for injury.  Several sports medicine professionals have complimented the training of Simone Biles- she is obviously very strong and does a lot of cross training.  She also practices her actual routines much less than what you would traditionally see in elite gymnastics.  This has limited her injury occurrence quite a bit.  

What’s the safest thing that parents should do?  Make sure your child is a multi-sport athlete or at least takes a significant break (1-3 months) from their preferred sport.  Let them be a kid- climbing trees, playing tag, and rollerblading are all great ways to cross train!

  1. Most Olympic athletes compete in multiple events stretched out over weeks. How does muscle fatigue affect performance and injury risk? How can athletes avoid these pitfalls?

Muscle fatigue is an obvious concern for those participating in multiple events, but these are also some of the most well-prepared athletes in their ability to recover.  Recovery is multi-factorial: physical rest, diet, muscle work, sleep, and understanding how to recover from their sport.  Recovering from a contact sport can take an entirely different approach than recovering from a marathon.  Athletes at this level are equipped with athletic trainers, physicians, biomechanists, sports psychologists, dieticians, and other professionals to ensure that the proper path is taken.  Also, athletes at this level are very in tune with their bodies and have often developed a recovery process as well as a better understanding of their physical limitations.

One of the biggest issues we see as non-elite athletes recover is the tendency to participate in an event (a race or game) and spend the next two days lying on the couch, eating whatever they feel like.  Ideally, athletes should keep their bodies moving in some way- an easy bicycle ride, light stretching, and a healthy diet filled with protein, .  This will help recovery far more than your muscle being inactive for multiple days.

  1. Older athletes are crushing it this year! What sort of injury risks is, say Michael Phelps facing in these Games that he may not have had to worry about in Athens during the 2004 Games?

Phelps almost looked like he wasn’t human during these games.  I think the biggest thing that we, as viewers, saw was that he was recovering more slowly towards the end of the Games.  That fatigue, as discussed earlier, can definitely increase the injury risk, but it was well managed by the medical staff in Phelps’ case.  In sports like swimming and running (Bernard Lagat was outstanding at 41!) there isn’t as high a level of age-associated risk for acute injury as there is in gymnastics or another contact sport.  We saw that 40-year-old Oksana Chusovitina from Uzbekistan did an outstanding job; however she appeared to lack the shear leg strength of the young gymnasts, especially after landing on high-impact apparatuses like the vault.  Chusovitina talked about how she had to modify her training to limit the impact on her knees, which could have led to a catastrophic injury in competition as she applied a force to her body that she wasn’t used to.

  1. What about teen athletes that are still growing and developing? Do they face different risks than a fully grown adult?

One thing we are noticing in orthopedics is that pediatric patients are experiencing adult injuries at a higher rate than we have ever seen before.  This is concerning because having an ACL reconstructed on a 9 year old child will increase their risk of arthritis and anterior knee pain in the future.  Starting the cycle of acute and overuse injuries in this younger population can make it tough to manage recreational sports as an adult.  Besides the risk of adult injuries, we know that concussions can have much more serious implications in pediatric and teen patients.  The return to sport timeline must be carefully considered for these athletes, as well as the return-to-learn and classroom management. Multiple concussions in a young athlete in a short period of time should be looked at by parents and healthcare professionals as a red flag for continued participation in high-risk sports.  Another injury that can change based on the age of the patient is fractures.  If the athlete is still growing and sustains a growth plate fracture, they are more likely to need surgery to recover.

  1. Some Olympians are competing just months removed from major surgery. How do they recover so fast? How has new technology and recovery techniques helped the recovery process?

The comeback following surgery has been quite amazing.  Surgical techniques are always being perfected and these athletes are usually available to work with a physical therapist to rehab for many more hours per day than a normal athlete.  The individualized treatment plan for these athletes is a huge factor in how they can recover with access to new techniques that are still being researched such as platelet rich plasma injections and the use of stem cells.

  1. What’s the deal with cupping? Is there any evidence that it works? Would your clinic ever recommend it or other pseudo-science recovery methods (i.e. acupuncture, chiropractic massage)?
Image 4

Michael Phelps shows off his cupping bruises before celebrating a relay win. (Daily Mail)


Cupping is a hot topic; however there hasn’t been much research to back it up.  I would not typically recommend it to a patient because, unlike most manual therapy techniques, there is no professional certification and training required.  Being unsure about the formal training of the clinician in such an invasive procedure would lead me to recommend other modalities.  The jury is still out on alternative recovery methods, and each clinician and physician has their own comfort level on what they would recommend.  I don’t know that I can make a blanket statement about recommending certain types of treatment, for me it is more important that I know the practitioner’s background and training.  I’ve seen some of these modalities, like acupuncture, work magnificently when performed by some clinicians but fail with others.  Big picture?  Find a doctor that you trust for advice and always question someone’s background and training before you agree to alternative treatments.

  1. Walk us through some of the high-profile/gross/cool injuries that have occurred at these Games so far. What exactly happened? What’s the recovery time? Will they compete again?

Samir Ait Said– Samir had a tibia and fibula fracture coming off the vault, which was reminiscent of Kevin Ware and the Louisville Cardinals.  The frustrating thing for Samir is that he missed the 2012 Olympics with a fracture in his right leg coming off the vault as well.  So why do some landings cause a grotesque fracture, but most people land normally and walk away?  We may never know exactly.  If this were my athlete, I would ask questions like- do they have a normal bone density?  Do they have proper strength for their event?  Are they overtraining and progressively weakening the bone? What is their nutrition like?  What were the biomechanics that led to each of their injuries?  There are so many questions we don’t have the answer to that I’m sure his coaches and medical team are actively striving to find.  Recovery time is variable depending on what exactly they found in surgery.  One clean break will often be quicker than multiple fracture sites.  Also, without knowing how the surrounding muscles were affected, it’s hard to say exactly.  Unfortunately, it is hard to predict the likelihood of Samir coming back at this time.  The success of the surgery and his commitment to rehabilitation will play a significant role in his ability to return to a high impact sport like gymnastics.

Image 2

Samir Ait Said, French gymnast suffers gruesome leg fracture off the vault. (The Sun)


Andranik Karapetyan– Andranik suffered an elbow dislocation while weight lifting, which can be a very painful injury.  Not much was released following the injury, so it is hard to say what exactly could have happened to him. There are 3 types of dislocations:

A simple dislocation does not have any major bone injury.

A complex dislocation can have severe bone and ligament injuries.

In the most severe dislocations, the blood vessels and nerves that travel across the elbow may be injured. If this happens, there is a risk of losing the arm.

Some people are born with greater laxity or looseness in their ligaments. These people are at greater risk for dislocating their elbows. Some people are born with an ulna bone that has a shallow groove for the elbow hinge joint. They have a slightly higher risk for dislocation.

Depending on what additional imaging and exam found, the type of dislocation can drastically impact the recovery and return to sport.

Image 3

Armenian weightlifter, Andranik Karapetyan dislocates his elbow during a lift. (Joe.co.uk)

Annemiek Van Vleuten– For those who missed the Van Vleuten cycling crash, it was one of the most horrific I have seen in any sport.  We know she had 3 fractured vertebrae and a concussion, so it looks like she will be okay long-term.  Any back injury, however, can be chronic if not managed appropriately.

  1. One that probably won’t make it into the final cut, but how is Ellie Downie not dead?
Image 1

Ellie Downie of the Great Britain Gymnastics team lands awkwardly on her neck. (NBC)

Ellie Downie suffered a cringe-worthy fall on her head and neck.  I know I wasn’t alone in wondering how she walked away from that injury (that mechanism of injury and the angle she fell is one of the most dangerous), but HOW DID SHE COME BACK? If there is anything I learned from working college football, it’s that not every injury is how it appears to the viewers.  Some of the craziest hits and falls can leave the athlete with minimal to no symptoms, while some of the most minor touches can cause a season-ending injury.  Sometimes I have to temper my desire to “couch diagnose” these athletes- they are in VERY capable hands! 

Samantha Burton, MS, ATC, LAT
Samantha received her B.S. in Athletic Training and M.S. in Exercise Science from
Brigham Young University where she worked for the BYU Football team and the BYU
Track and Cross Country team.  She is currently working at Baylor College of 
Medicine to develop the Sports Medicine Outreach program and bring medical care 
and education to athletes of all ages and skill levels. She is trained in manual 
therapy, Graston technique, Functional Movement Screen, Titelist Performance 
Institute Certified,concussion testing, and is a Red Cross first aid + CPR 
instructor.  She is married to a medical school bound scientist, has 1.5 kids 
(both boys), and spends 100% of her free time traveling and dreaming of being 
independently wealthy.
Anthony Barrasso (President)
AnthonyBarrasso_AvatarAnthony is a 4rd year graduate student studying retinal development. 
His career interests include cancer research, education, and politics.
Outside of lab, he likes playing with his dog and eating delicious
food. Follow him on twitter @barrasso67


Where SHOULD your Olympic sports take place?


Despite so much trepidation heading into the Rio Olympics  the most infamous scandal was fabricated by Ryan Lochte, a fraternity party that fell into a pool. What happened to all the gastrointestinal fireworks we were promised? I was expecting browned pools and vomit-filled sprints, but all I got was amazing competition and record-breaking performances. Thanks for nothing, Rio! While all the concern may have been for naught, the location of the games can actually impact the sports themselves. Where should the Olympics be hosted if we want to break more records? I’m talking about a location where circumstance and nature combine to create an environment that favors the athlete. Where, scientifically, should individual Olympic games be held?

Running: Don’t be afraid to get sand in your shoes.

We’re starting off with the most well known example. Marathons and any extended running event should occur at sea level. Many of you are aware that professional runners often train at high altitudes, but do you know why? Take a look at this diagram from national geographic.

You’ll notice that oxygen is at a lower concentration at higher elevations and vice versa. This is because the Earth’s atmosphere presses down on everything under it, including oxygen. Thus, oxygen at lower elevations is concentrated by the atmosphere above it. Runners train in high altitude, low oxygen environments so that their bodies start manufacturing more red blood cells, which contain the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin protein. More red blood cells means more hemoglobin, and a better ability to transfer oxygen to your muscles when you need it most. When runners compete at sea level their bodies are still producing hemoglobin as if they were at high altitude, boosting the benefit they receive from the high-oxygen environment.

Swimming: Get your float on at the Dead Sea.

Catch people dipping into the Dead Sea and they’ll probably look like this:

That’s not an optical illusion. You’re more buoyant in the Dead Sea because of its high salinity, or salt content. The more salt there is dissolved in water, the denser it becomes and the less water you displace as a result. You can easily demonstrate this principle at home by floating eggs. How does this help swimmers? The higher the salinity, the more buoyant they are and the less drag they create cutting through the water, creating faster swim times. Hold Olympic swim meets in the Dead Sea, and watch the records fall.

Weightlifting: Lighten your load by getting lightheaded.

This Olympics, Lasha Talakhadze of Georgia set a new world record by lifting 473 kilograms, or 1,043 pounds! However, this record was heavier than it needed to be, because it occurred around sea level. Newton’s law of universal gravitation reveals that the force of gravity on objects is inversely proportional to the distance between them. In other words, the farther apart any two masses are, the weaker the force of gravity attracting them. For Talakhadze, the farther those 473 kg are from the center of the Earth, the lighter they will be. Because Earth has an equatorial bulge, a weightlifter wants to be on the highest mountain closest to the equator (think Mt. Kilimanjaro). Here, the force of those 473 kg is about 18 Newtons (or 4 pounds) less than at sea level because the gravitational acceleration, the rate at which objects fall to Earth, is not 9.8 m/s2 but more like 9.76 m/s2. Those 4 pounds may not seem like much, but it more than makes up the difference between the previous record of 472 kg.

Equestrian Sports – Northern Europe, 10,000 B.C.

We’ve exhausted the simple, straightforward methods to boost athletic performance. Let’s start getting creative and travel back in time. Imagine all the beauty and splendor of jumping and dressage; but instead of horses, the athletes are riding these majestic beasts:

That’s Megalocerus giganteus, or the extinct Irish Elk. Actually a kind of deer, these megafauna roamed Eurasia during the Pleistocene epoch. Riding Irish Elk to Olympic glory would smash current records and turn every competitor into a gallivanting version of Thranduil from The Hobbit. There are even people spearheading de-extinction efforts to bring them back. Of course at that point the athletes are no longer equestrians, but rather megalocerians!


The Hobbit, Warner Bros. Pictures      

Sailing – Miami, FL in the year 2100

In the object of balance, let’s take a trip to the future to round out our ideal Olympic venues. Depending on humanity’s response to global warming, rising seas could threaten the billions of shoreline denizens through flooding alone! Check out these interactive maps to determine just how close to disaster your favorite coastline is. Of particular curiosity, the southern tip of Florida will be wiped clear off the map if carbon emissions remain unchecked.

But when man’s hubris drowns you in lemons, make Olympic lemonade! We could easily turn downtown Miami into a sailing course for future Olympians. Picture the excitement of navigating a dystopian floodscape!  At the very least, sailing will become less Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and more Kurt Russel in Escape from L.A.


Escape From LA, Paramount Pictures

austen_avatarAusten is a 6th year graduate student and member of Science ACEs. His dream is to go fishing every day once he’s finished with this bacterial pathogenesis thing. You can follow him on twitter @austenleet.

So you’d like to evade doping charges

By Jessica Scott

Congratulations! After much contemplation and vicarious living through the athletes on TV, you’ve decided to try out for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Because your only recent feat of athleticism was when you hung up a shirt really fast while pretending to be part of the Olympic Laundry Folding Team, you have a lot of catching up to do. However, you’re not sure how committed you’ll really be to the training schedule of an Olympic athlete. Not to worry! The age-old tradition of doping can turn you into an athlete without all that time and energy.*

There is one tiny hiccup in this plan, which is that athletes at professional competitions are subject to random drug screening. At the Olympics, for instance, you may be tested at any time, and you must provide a schedule of your whereabouts at any given moment so they always know where to find you for such tests. Compounding this difficulty, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) makes it their business to figure out what drugs the cool kids are taking and tests for all of them – stimulants, hormones, steroids, glucocorticoids, you name it. WADA accredited labs must be able to perform a wide range of analytic tests on blood, urine, or saliva samples. Does this present a problem to you as an aspiring but lazy athlete?

lance armstrong

Does Lance Armstrong feel guilty for cheating his way to the top?

Of course not! Just follow this handy-dandy guide to avoiding doping charges.  

  1.       Get into the chem lab. They can’t catch you if you use a compound they’re not testing for yet. One time-honored tradition among unscrupulous athletes and coaches is to find and use steroids that aren’t on the testing panel yet. Steroids work by activating Androgen Receptor (AR), and it turns out AR isn’t picky – there are hundreds of different kinds of steroids and AR will respond to a pretty good portion of ‘em. Do be aware that WADA may soon be able to foil cheaters like you. A new steroid detection method simply tests whether or not AR has been activated, meaning WADA doesn’t have to try to figure out which steroids are hip on the streets; one test could cover a multitude of drugs.
  1.       Don’t do drugs – inject yourself with your own blood. Instead of using traditional drugs, like steroids, many athletes are “blood doping.” The old-fashioned way to do this is to remove one’s own blood only to re-transfuse it in time for competition. The more elegant method (and Lance Armstrong’s preferred cheating tactic) is to take erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that increases red blood cell production in the body. Unfortunately, this method can be hit-or-miss for the aspiring doper. Although EPO is only detectable for a few days in the bloodstream and eliminates the need to smuggle bags of blood into the Olympics, WADA is beginning to implement Athlete Biological Passports. Among other things, biological passports would establish a normal red blood cell count for an individual athlete, and an unusually high red blood cell count might raise a red flag (haha). If you do use this method, we here at Science ACEs** recommend using leeches to remove large portions of your blood right after you compete just in case you get called for testing. 

What’s that? Leeches gross you out? No excuses, dope like a champion!

  1.       Try microdosing. Microdosing is all the rage among top athletes. Basically, athletes will use drugs in small enough doses that they don’t hit the threshold for a positive test. Perhaps you already play the same game with alcohol and DUIs (you’ll have to stop that; Olympic athletes tend not to have beer bellies). Obviously, you’ll want to microdose with hormones or steroids that are already present in the human body – testosterone is a particularly popular one. This way, the WADA won’t be sure if you’re actually doping or just naturally producing close to the legal threshold for performance enhancing drugs, which brings me to…
  1.       Get a genetic test. Okay, this one requires a little explanation. When labs test for testosterone, they’re really measuring the ratio between two chemicals: testosterone glucuronide (TG) and epitestosterone glucuronide (EG). TG is a byproduct of testosterone, and EG is a byproduct of epitestosterone, testosterone’s inactive cousin. Normally, the TG to EG, or T/E, ratio in the human body is somewhere around 1:1. Athletes who inject testosterone will end up with a higher-than-normal T/E ratio. However, certain people are genetically predisposed to have a lower ratio in the first place. A gene called UGT2B17 controls testosterone metabolism. Depending on your parents, you may have one, two, or zero working copies of this gene. If you have zero working copies, your body can have high levels of testosterone without the resulting high levels of TG. If you have two working copies, your body will have a naturally high T/E ratio. The WADA sets a ratio of 4:1 as the threshold to accommodate for these scenarios.

Naturally, this list is just a starting point for evading detection as you bend the definitions of “sportsmanship” and “integrity.” As you get further into the world of athletics, you may come across more straightforward but less interesting methods such as hiding fake urine on your person, bribery, and threatening whistleblowers.

And if you decide to go completely drug-free and compete on your own merit, you might need to worry about drug testing anyway. Due to natural variations in the human body, no drug test can completely eliminate false positives. If you take certain prescriptions, make sure you carry a doctor’s note. Remember how you can get lucky with two nonfunctional copies of UGT2B17? Well, you can also get unlucky with two working copies. Up to 5% of people may have natural T/E ratios that exceed the 4:1 threshold that the WADA considers positive for doping. Due to the poor regulation of nutritional supplements, it’s even possible to unintentionally take performance-enhancing drugs! Long story short, guys, keep yourselves educated about drug testing procedures. It’s all that stands between you and Olympic glory.

*I assume that is how this works.

**Science ACEs does not endorse the use of leeches. Or drugs. This is just me.

Jessica Scott (Editor)
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJess is a fifth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.

Why the Weird Bruises on Michael Phelps Reminded Me of Summer Camp

When people think of summer camp, they do not normally think of science. Surprisingly, I learned a lot of science in the boy’s dorm rooms of my high school summer camp.  I mostly learned about the flammability of health care products. Our amateur experiments included the science behind an “Atomic Hickey”. To form an Atomic Hickey, a person would first rub toothpaste along a spot of their body. Then someone else would spray a small glass jar full of aerosol deodorant. The spray would then be ignited, and the jar would quickly be placed onto the toothpaste-covered spot (the toothpaste protecting from any residual heat). If done properly, the oxygen inside the jar would be completely consumed by the flames, creating a vacuum as the jar was firmly placed against skin. Removing the jar a few minutes later would leave the person with a discolored circle on their body. I never did one, but I do remember going to the beach the next day and watching some guys try to explain why their bodies were covered in circular bruises.

Fast-forward several years to this summer, and I was highly intrigued by all of the weird, circular marks on Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. I mean each one looked like an Atomic Hickey, but I doubted that was what they were doing in the Olympic Village.

(Copyright NBC Sports)

It turns out that I was half right. The bruises were the result of a massage technique known as cupping or myofascial decompression (MFD), a Chinese technique dating from 281 AD. Cupping uses negative pressure to increase blood flow to targeted spots of the body as a treatment for stiffness, muscle pain, skin grafts, and other conditions. However, the suction can burst small blood vessels, leaving the bruise marks.

Now that Michael Phelps, an Olympian who literally breaks records shrouded in legend, has been shown to use cupping the popularity of the technique will likely increase. But even with increased attention, the big question remains; does the technique actually work, or is it the placebo effect? The placebo effect is where belief in the treatment heals the patient. You may recognize the term from stories of someone getting a placebo instead of a drug during a drug trial where the placebo is a sugar pill. The person who took the sugar pill may feel better just because they think they received the actual treatment. This allows scientists to test if a drug actually works.

To return to cupping therapy, there have been few large scale scientific studies to prove that cupping therapy produces the desired treatment outcomes it is purported to do. There is some evidence that the claimed treatment outcomes are the result of the placebo effect, but also some evidence that cupping does in fact help relieve pain. This means that the benefits of cupping are not currently well characterized, and although it is still classified as “alternative medicine” at this time, it could mean that cupping may eventually prove to be a viable treatment. Scientific study has both supported and rejected many treatments that would be considered “alternative medicine” . Hopefully, this Olympics exposure will support more scientific study of cupping therapy on a large scale, or at least provide a good excuse for kids goofing around at summer camp to continue the tradition of the Atomic Hickey.

The Motley Advocate (Editor)
Slide1Motley Advocate is a Christian, a biologist, a writer and an amateur at many other things. He doesn’t  have a twitter but you can e-mail him at science.aces15@gmail.com

Engineering a Faster Olympic Swimmer

The Olympics are often thought of as competitions of human strength and skill. However, the world of swimming has changed drastically in the last decade thanks to engineers and researchers working on something often overlooked in swimming competitions: the swimsuit. Swimsuits of today do more than protect the modesty of the swimmer. The materials used are designed to reduce drag and increase buoyancy while also improving the muscle power of the athletes. Pretty soon, using these swimsuits, athletes began smashing previous world records.


Four swimming events. (A) Men 200 m Breast. (B) Men 50 m Freestyle (C) Women 100 m Back (D) Women 1500 m Freestyle. Red lines mark the introduction of full-body polyurethane suits. Adapted from Berthalot et al. Materials Today 2010

To better understand how these swimsuits could lead to a sudden burst in performance, we’ll look at the physics of swimming. As you swim there are four forces acting on your body. First is gravity. Like always gravity is trying to bring you down. Second is the buoyant force. Being in the water displaces some amount of water molecules. If the swimmer weighs more than the water the swimmer displaces, they sink. This is why dense objects sink and light objects float. Third is thrust, the force from the swimmer pushing against the water with their hands, arms and feet. The last force is drag. This is the force of the water resisting your motion.


Free body diagram showing swimmer in one-piece swimsuit (gray) and the four forces acting on them. Arrows are drawn to show how much they affect the swimmer

The type of swimsuit can change how much of a role the different forces play. A full-body polyurethane suit like the ones worn in 2008 allowed water to slide off the suit instead of allowing it to pass through. This reduced the drag the swimmer experienced allowing them to swim faster. Adding to that, air pockets in the suit increase the buoyant force keeping the swimmer closer to the surface. Being on top of the water instead of farther down further reduces the drag on the swimmer.


Free body diagrams showing how the swimsuit worn (gray) changes how the swimmer (blue) experiences the same four forces. Reduced drag and increased buoyancy allowed swimmers to swim faster than ever.

Swimming with less drag has allowed the swimmers to swim faster and smash previous world records. The technology in the suits led the International Swimming Federation (FINA) to ban suits made out of rubber-like materials such as neoprene and polyurethane. Current restrictions on suit design include limits on how much of the body the suit can cover, what material it can be made of, how thick the suit is, and prohibits “outstanding shapes or structures, such as scales.”

With these constraints, major suit manufacturers such as Speedo and Arena Water Instinct are looking for new ways to improve athlete performance. Team USA (except for Michael Phelps who has launched his own line of competitive swimwear) is swimming in the Speedo Fastskin LZR Racer X. These suits use compression and carbon fibers to enhance muscle activity and connect muscle groups to increase performance from these athletes. The swimmers keep getting better and better with new world records set all the time. It won’t be too long before they overtake the records set in those full body suits.

Bryan Visser
2013-12-04 14.06.58Bryan is a 3rd year graduate student studying DNA replication. He plans 
on making a career for science advocacy working at a museum or in 
Washington, DC. In his free time, Bryan enjoys board games and ballroom 

Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition Review

By: Biotechie

Last weekend, I got to explore Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition at Johnson Space Center here in Houston. This exhibition is touring the US, and will be here in Houston through September 5. As an avid Mythbuster’s fan since the show’s beginning, naturally I was itching to go visit.


Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition is a collection of props from the show, alongside  interactive experiments and demonstrations that allow you to step into the Mythbusters’ shoes. Initially, I was worried that the science behind some of the phenomena that were explored on the show would be left behind for only the fun explosives that Jamie, Adam, and the other Mythbusters love. I also feared that this would be a museum exhibit rather than something truly interactive.

I was definitely proven wrong! Sure, there was a large museum-like component to the exhibit, but for a Mythbuster’s fan like myself, seeing copies of the blueprints and exploded items from the show were really cool. The biggest winner for me, though, was that the exhibit was designed such that participants are invited to test mini-myths on their own. As you approach the table to look at the blueprints, Jam
ie and Adam are projected on a large TV, telling you about the scientific method and, rather than telling you, “Don’t try this at home,” they invite you to do some Mythbusting of your own.


Dan, a Citizen Scientist member of ACEs (and Biotechie’s fiance), flips through a collection of blueprints

You can test the myth of whether walking or running in the rain makes you get less wet, or what types of house designs you need to prevent it from blowing away in a storm (see Dan’s house design below). The myths they have chosen for the exhibit are really ways to get you to build hypotheses and ask questions, then immediately put your hypotheses to the test to get a result. Even young kids who have not seen a single show can learn a lot from this interactive exhibit. Most of the stations are fairly simple to grasp and can be repeated over and over again to re-test your hypotheses. When we visited the exhibition, there were several kids under the age of ten actively testing the wind tunnel and a tablecloth station. You know they’re having fun learning when you hear one of them say, “Listen to my hypothesis! I want to test it!” Let’s hope that Netflix brings Mythbusters back to streaming as I have a feeling several of these kids are now Mythbusters fans as well.

The final verdict? I think Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition is a great family or school-related excursion. The fact that the exhibition invites you to have some hands-on experience with thmb3e scientific method makes this a win in my book. This is one way to do some citizen science without making a huge mess at home. It could easily be incorporated into a science curriculum for students learning about the scientific method. I highly recommend it, and not just because I’m a Mythbusters lover. Going through the exhibition can help kids and adults alike reignite their interest in science. In addition, at least while this exhibit is here in Houston, you are also exploring Johnson Space Center, where you can learn all about NASA, the Space Program, and the cool science and engineering that go into every mission.


ScienceAces1Biotechie is the Science ACEs social media manger (@scienceaces and facebook.com/scienceaces). She is a 4th year PhD student researching cell function, cholesterol, and obesity. You can follow her personal twitter @biotech_babe.

Zika and the Olympics

The Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics will be held today in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Unfortunately, Brazil is currently in the midst of a Zika virus outbreak and the “Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive” than originally thought.1

Although the Zika virus was discovered nearly seventy years ago, the viral strain that recently entered Brazil is new, different, and vastly more dangerous than “old” Zika.2 Lineage tracing and molecular analyses have determined that Brazil’s massive outbreak stems from a single viral introduction likely between May and December 2013.2

The Virus:

Zika is an arbovirus of the Flaviviridae family, which means it is similar to dengue, West Nile and yellow fever viruses.3 As a virus it cannot function outside of a living cell. While there is limited evidence that Zika can infect monkeys and apes, currently, all evidence suggests that the virus is passed from human to human via the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The map above shows where these mosquitos are found which also represents where Zika virus could spread.4

The Disease:

Zika infection is most notorious for the pediatric microcephaly (small head) it causes during fetal development.5 In Rio de Janeiro, a recent study shows that among women with confirmed Zika infections during pregnancy, 29% had fetal abnormalities on ultrasound.6 There’s increasing clinical evidence that Zika infection is also responsible for adult conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome7 and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (brain swelling), which are debilitating and sometimes fatal.8

Zika and the Olympics:

Rio de Janeiro’s suspected Zika cases are the highest of any state in in Brazil (26,000), and its Zika incidence rate is the fourth worst of any state (157 per 100,000).9

An estimated 500,000 foreign tourists are expected to flock into Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Games, both from the 207 countries participating and others that are not. When these individuals return to their homes both local Aedes mosquitoes and sexual transmission could establish new outbreaks, if the visitors carry the virus with them.10, 11

In addition to that there are concerns for the safety of the athletes participating in the Games. Out of fear of contracting Zika, many of the top ranked male golfers have withdrawn from the Olympic entirely.12 Australia has provided its athletes with antiviral condoms.13 The American National Institutes of Health has recruited athletes into a study looking at the rates and effects of exposure.14

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) writes that the Olympics seek to create “social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”.  People have questioned if it is socially responsible or ethical to risk spreading Zika? Especially considering that, while the people who fly to Brazil to see the games have chosen to expose themselves the people they return to have not made that choice. There were viable alternatives. Historically, the 1976 Winter Olympics were moved, and the 1994 Winter Olympics broke with the regular schedule.  London, Beijing, Athens and Sydney still possess useable Olympic facilities to take over from Rio.  Since the IOC decided in 2014 that the Olympics could be shared between countries, sporting events could even be split between them making this the first transcontinental, truly Global Olympics.15


Zika can cause a lifelong devastating brain malformation in a developing fetus and debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults. The most recent figures show that there are 157 cases per 100,000 people in Rio de Jenairo.9 With at least 500,000 people expected to come for the Olympics that could equate to 785 cases of Zika which could be transmitted to areas that have not been infected.

It has been suggested that since the Olympics will be held during Brazil’s winter, there won’t be any of the Aedes aegypti mosquito to transmit the virus. However, this year cases of dengue virus (a closely related virus transmitted by the same mosquito) have been six-fold higher than a year ago (8,133 cases, compared to 1,285 cases).16, 17 While there is obviously a risk of infecting participants, spectators, and, through them, spreading the virus to other areas of the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) has released a statement that “cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus” as Brazil is only “1 of almost 60 countries and territories which to date report continuing transmission of Zika by mosquitoes” but advises “pregnant women not to travel to areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission, including Rio de Janeiro”.18

Zika research is already on the fast track, and with time, the odds are excellent that scientists can develop, test, and prove an effective Zika vaccine, antiviral drug, insecticide, or genetically-engineered mosquito. Unfortunately, science needs time.

The Olympic village is already filling up with athletes and only time will tell if the games will be affected by this Zika epidemic.

The Science Aces would like to wish all of the athletes, supporters, spectators and citizens of the area a safe and exciting Olympic Games!


[1]Amir Attaran. Off the Podium: Why Public Health Concerns for Global Spread of Zika Virus Means That Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Olympic Games Must Not Proceed. Harvard Public Health Review. Retrieved June 29, 2016.

[2] Faria NR, do Socorro da Silva Azebedo R, Kraemer MUG, et al. Zika virus in the Americas: Early epidemiological and genetic findings. Science. Published online March 24, 2016.  DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf5036

[3] Hamel R, Dejarnac O, Wichit S, Ekchariyawat P, Neyret A, Luplertlop N, Perera-Lecoin M, Surasombatpattana P, Talignani L, Thomas F, Cao-Lormeau V, Choumet V, Briant L, Desprès P, Amara A, Yssel H, Misséa D. Biology of Zika Virus Infection in Human Skin Cells. Journal of Virology 2015; doi:10.1128/JVI.00354-15

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Zika and Animals. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/transmission/qa-animals.html.

[5] Rasmussen SA, Jamieson DJ, Honein MA, Petersen LR. Zika Virus and Birth Defects — Reviewing the Evidence for Causality. NEJM 2016; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsr1604338.

[6] Brasil P, Pereira JP Jr, Raja Gabaglia C, et al. Zika virus infection in pregnant women in Rio de Janeiro — preliminary report. NEJM 2016; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1602412

[7] Cao-Lormeau V-M, Blake A, Mons S, et al. Guillain-Barré Syndrome outbreak associated with Zika virus infection in French Polynesia: a case-control study. Lancet 2016; 387:1531-39.

[8] Brito Ferreira ML. Neurologic Manifestations of Arboviruses in the Epidemic in Pernambuco, Brazil. Abstract presented at the 68th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, April 10, 2016. Available at: https://www.aan.com/PressRoom/home/GetDigitalAsset/12033.

[9] Ministério da Saúde, Secretaria de Vigilância em Saúde. Boletim Epidemiológico 2016;47(18). Available at: http://portalsaude.saude.gov.br/images/pdf/2016/abril/27/2016-014—Dengue-SE13-substitui—-o.pdf

[10] Oster AM, Russel K, Stryker JE, Friedman MS, et al. Update: Interim Guidance for Prevention of Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus — United States, 2016. MMWR 2016;65(12):323-5.

[11] Petersen LR, Jamieson DJ, Powers AM, Honein MA. Zika virus. NEJM 2016;374:1552-63.

[12] Kyle Porter. 2016 Rio Olympics: A list of all the golfers who will not compete this summer. CBSSports. July 11, 2016

[13] Australian Olympic Committee. Australian Team taking Dual Protect™ VivaGel® Condoms to Rio. Available at: http://rio2016.olympics.com.au/news/australian-team-taking-dual-protect-vivagel-condoms-to-rio. May 16, 2016

[14] National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. NIH funds Zika Virus study involving U.S. Olympic Team. Available at: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/Pages/070516-zika-olympics.aspx. Published July 5, 2016.

[15] Associated Press. I.O.C. Approves Sweeping Reform Package. New York Times December 8, 2014. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/09/sports/olympics/ioc-approves-tv-channel-and-changes-in-bidding-process.html

[16] Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Superintendência de Vigilância em Saúde. Número de Casos de Dengue por mês, 2016.  Available at: http://www.rio.rj.gov.br/dlstatic/10112/6062171/4159109/denguenotificadosexcetodescartadosMes_2016_21_03_2016.htm

[17] Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Superintendência de Vigilância em Saúde. Número de Casos de Dengue por mês, 2015.  Available at: http://www.rio.rj.gov.br/dlstatic/10112/5880996/4153672/denguenotificadosexcetodescartadosMes2015_25_01_2016.htm

[18] World Health Organization. WHO public health advice regarding the Olympics and Zika. Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2016/zika-health-advice-olympics/en/. Published May 28, 2016. Retrieved June 29, 2016.

Christina is a Ph.D. candidate studying the interactions between gut bacteria and the human intestine. She is pursuing a career teaching undergraduates.