Junior’s athletic research leads to national competition

For most people, running is all about leg power. However, for junior Vineel Mallavarapu, it’s all about brain power. What began as a research project to pursue his personal aspirations ended up landing Mallavarapu in a spot among the most talented and competitive young minds on the planet.

This weekend, Mallavarapu traveled to Maryland to present his work to a panel of esteemed judges for a shot at scholarships and incredible academic prestige.

So what exactly has this humble young man been up to?

Towards the beginning of his sophomore year, Mallavarapu combined his passion for athletics with his aspirations to pursue the medical profession. He planned to research the running of cross country athletes, aiming to figure out exactly how and why the best runners took home first place.

Taking initiative, Mallavarapu contacted University of Northern Iowa professor Kevin Finn for help in his testing. He then assembled a group of state-qualifying cross country runners from Cedar Falls, Hudson and Denver to participate in various forms of physical attribute testing. Because these athletes all ran on the same course in Fort Dodge, Mallavarapu could correlate each athlete’s data with their race performances.

Gathering data included recording each runner’s height, weight, body fat percentage and maximal oxygen consumption, as well as recording video clips of the runners on a treadmill to analyze their strides. After performing statistical analysis, Mallavarapu found that a higher stride frequency seemed to be the most prominent factor in better race performance.

Taking the research a stride further, Mallavarapu rented a running-kinematics software that allowed him to map joint angles in the runners’ strides.

“Using those joint angles, I can run a statistical analysis and find out which joint angles from which runners resulted in a better race performance — breaking running down to mechanics, basically,” Mallavarapu said. He also analyzed and recorded data on the runners’ gait cycles, which involves the mechanics of the various stages of running motion.

After finishing with testing, Mallavarapu compiled his research and published a paper — a process that was completed in mid-January this year. He then submitted the paper to a scholarship program known as the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS). “The research was out of personal interest, and then I found out this program existed. I thought it’d be cool, you know. Why not just enter?” Mallavarapu asked.

After evaluation, 15 papers from Iowa students are selected for the regional symposium competition — among them, Mallavarapu’s. The 15 then present their research in front of a panel of judges and an audience at the Belin-Blank center at the University of Iowa. Twelve minutes are allotted for presentation, followed by six minutes of open questioning from the judges. “They make sure you know your stuff,” Mallavarapu said.

After a day of deliberation amongst the judges, the scores are given, and the top five students move on to the national competition; however, only the top two formally present their research to the panel of national judges. The other three present a poster-board style representation of their research. There will be no poster-board for Mallavarapu, however. He is headed straight for the national judges’ panel with an incredible first place finish at the regional competition.

Mallavarapu has been working to refine his presentation at the national level. “The judges give their feedback from the regional competition, and basically I just tweak some things in my paper and presentation, and do it again in Maryland,” he said.

At the national competition, Mallavarapu will be among 270 total students that come from around the globe to compete, and winning the competition would entail a substantial scholarship.

“I’m excited. I’m sort of nervous too because you’re in front of this panel of judges and competing with other kids who are really passionate about their research too, but at the same time I’m not as nervous because I’m already happy that I’m this far.”

With aspirations for the future, Mallavarapu plans to continue his inspiring pursuit of athletics and medicine. With a successful high school tennis career, he also hopes to continue playing at the collegiate level. “I love tennis, so hopefully I could play somewhere in college — then hopefully go on to become a doctor. I’m interested in sports medicine and orthopedics, which would be a good mix of my interests.”

Mallavarapu presented his research on Thursday, April 30. Don’t worry, however, because he will return to Cedar Falls just in time to present his other smooth moves on the dance floor at prom.

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