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From Phila. U. lacrosse field to Fulbright award

Libby Nichols, then 10 years old, wasn't considering future implications of what she was feeling after she fell at soccer practice. She just knew her head hurt.

Philadelphia University lacrosse player Libby Nichols. (Photo credit: Gary Schempp)
Philadelphia University lacrosse player Libby Nichols. (Photo credit: Gary Schempp)Read more

Libby Nichols, then 10 years old, wasn't considering future implications of what she was feeling after she fell at soccer practice. She just knew her head hurt.

"I didn't know what all happened. I was seeing dots," Nichols said. "I continued to play. I shouldn't have. We did a heading drill right after I fell."

By that night, she was vomiting. A trip to the emergency room confirmed she'd suffered a mild concussion.

As far as Nichols knows, that's the only concussion she ever suffered. A little firsthand experience is useful now, since Nichols studies brain trauma, which has led to a prestigious honor. The Philadelphia University senior found out last week that she has been awarded a Fulbright research award, a grant to study the effects of concussions on young soccer players in one of that sport's world capitals - Munich, Germany.

Nichols, from Ellicott City, Md., played a year of soccer at Philadelphia University, but the Franklin and Marshall transfer really made her mark at the school as a lacrosse player. This spring, she was Philly U.'s team MVP and player of the year in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference after the Rams won the league title.

She also was a pre-med student. Medical school still is her plan after the year in Munich, with a possible future in pediatrics. Her work on concussions and sub-concussions began in earnest last summer when Nichols worked with Philadelphia University engineering students on a study of youth players from the Philadelphia Union Academy, seeing the impact of heading a soccer ball.

She found that players who headed the ball an unusually high number of times during practice sessions had more errors on a neurocognitive assessment. A fascinating finding, although Nichols is quick to say: "I'll have to do a lot more tests to see if that pattern continues."

In Germany, she'll be testing more youth soccer players. She'll go over in September and first take a monthlong language immersion course.

How she obtained the Fulbright grant is noteworthy in itself. Nichols didn't just sit around wondering if anyone would find her work interesting. She found a mentor.

"When I figured out I wanted to pursue the Fulbright, I started reading tons of papers about traumatic brain injury," Nichols said.

One paper that caught her eye, comparing adult male soccer players with swimmers, looking at white-matter integrity in their brain, was written by Inga Koerte, a visiting senior research fellow at Harvard Medical School's psychiatry neuroimaging laboratory in Boston, and a senior research fellow at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.

Koerte is a big-leaguer, working on various studies, including an important study of retired NFL players, led by Robert Stern at Boston University. Koerte recalls that Nichols contacted her about a year ago.

"I was very interested in working together with her," Koerte said Monday in a telephone interview. "She seemed to be a very motivated student and also an athlete herself. I think that makes it so much easier to deal with the athletes we're researching."

Koerte added that Nichols' interest in the behavioral aspect was a great addition to her own team, since she focuses on neuroimaging.

"It's very, very important," Koerte said of Nichols' field of research. Looking at the impact of sub-concussive hits on children, Koerte suspects they will find real risks at the younger ages. She notes that players in her native Germany now start systematic soccer training at age 6 or 7, but they are not supposed to head the ball until they are older, 14 or so. They do, of course, Koerte said, so this adds an aspect of danger if there isn't proper training. Sort of a training catch-22.

From her own playing experience and that of teammates, especially in soccer, Nichols said, she'd think "there must be a reason I have this headache."

That got her wondering about sub-concussive hits, which led to her present path. Plenty of athletes see dots. Nichols decided she wanted to connect them.