Jeff Campbell is holding a chunk of a synthetic spine in his hand. He's just pulled it out of a machine called a spine simulator, which is a metal vice that looks like a cross between a guillotine and the Terminator. It can pull tension on the spine in any direction, and multiple cameras and sensors are trained on it.
"We can capture every movement through the cameras," says Campbell, who is dressed in jeans and flannel instead of a lab coat.
He is in the Applied Biomechanics Lab of the University of Washington in Seattle, where Campbell, 31, is a second-year Ph.D. student. The lab is filled with high-tech machines, while crash test dummies and cracked helmets are stacked around the room.
Campbell's adviser, Randy Ching, the lab's director and an associate professor at Washington, is on the NFL's health committee. He is one of the people whose research pushed through the new concussion-related helmet hitting rules.
Ching is an expert on head, neck and spine injuries. Campbell is studying these injuries too, but instead of football, his interest is in skiing. Mainly because Campbell himself is a skier.
His thesis looks at how the shape of terrain park jumps determines how people end up in the air and how often they get unintentionally inverted. Or, in science jargon, how ramp angle and curvature affects flight stability. In other words, he's trying to stop skiers and snowboarders from landing on their heads. The end goal: to see if changing the angle of the run-in can prevent people -- especially less experienced riders -- from getting off balance and landing on their heads.
"We think there are ways to optimize it, to help if the person goes off in the backseat due to fear or positioning, but we don't know what we can control until we measure it," Campbell says.
He's working with a Seattle-based company called Guidance Engineering, which gets called in to re-create accidents after someone crashes on a jump and sues the ski resort. The company is trying to come up with research to help make jumps safer, which, in theory, will benefit the skiers and the resorts.
When Guidance Engineering needed someone to run the tests, it didn't have to look far to find the perfect person for the job.
Campbell was a skier before he was a lab nerd.
He grew up in Salt Lake City skiing at Alta. He's been sponsored, in some form or another, for the past 10 years, and he's been on the cover of Backcountry and Powder magazines. In 2006, while he was working for a similar lab at the University of Utah researching femur rods, he launched off Femur Rock at Snowbird and shattered his own femur.
"After I broke my leg, I was so glad I was in school and had something to keep me occupied; otherwise I would have gone crazy," he says. "That locked me into biomechanics."
Currently, jumps are built with a disregard for biomechanics, which Campbell says is the problem. They're designed using ballistic load equations.
"Basically they say, 'If you roll a bowling ball down a jump run-in and you know its velocity and ramp angle, where is it going to land?'" he says. "It treats your body as a rigid point with a low center of mass. That isn't really how it works, but that's the best thing out there right now."
Campbell says it's important to track real people in real time. Researchers at Guidance Engineering already did a study at Colorado's Woodward at Copper that tracked where skiers and snowboarders landed in reality compared to where a computer-generated model said they should land. They found no correlation between the two landings. Now, Campbell and Guidance Engineering's researchers are putting riders in coordinate-mapped suits, which track their movements the same way the spine sensor in the lab does, monitoring exactly what happens when riders hit jumps.
For instance, if the ramp angle causes you to take off in the backseat, how does that torque your body and cause you to land on your head?
What they're doing is unique, according to Campbell. He says no one has tracked the body mechanics of park skiers and riders, and most engineers usually work the other way, building the mathematical model first then seeing if it holds true.
This year, they took their initial research to Cutter's Camp at Mount Hood and presented it to the terrain park crews. He says the reaction was good and the jump builders were interested in the lab's findings. Resorts such as Mount Hood want to build safer jumps too.
"Our goal isn't to regulate parks. It's not really possible because snow is too malleable," Campbell says. "I don't think regulation is the answer. People just need better tools to design with."
Campbell is trying to get funding to keep the project going. They're still collecting data, and they want to build a large number of differently sized jumps to see if their theories hold true.
The data they're collecting can help prevent head injuries, Campbell says, but they can also be used to teach people how to hit jumps and effectively to build bigger -- but safer -- jumps. They've already presented the research to the U.S. Aerials and Freeskiing teams, which he says are interested in using it to teach elite athletes new tricks, like triples, with less risk of injury.
Long term, Campbell says he wants to toe the line of academia and the ski and snowboard industry. His goal is to use biomechanics to make snow sports easier and safer. When he broke his femur, he damaged his knee too, so he has ideas about joint replacements that he wants to act on.
Being a scientist isn't stopping him from skiing, though. He can still sneak out of the lab on powder days.
"I do my best problem solving and get my best ideas on the skin track," he says.