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The Story of Sydney Sappenfield Reflects SPRI’s Commitment to Community Outreach and Education

During the 2011-2012 school year, a seventh-grade student at Vail Mountain School had an idea for a science fair project, but wanted to ask an expert a few questions about the research process.

Unannounced, she called the Steadman Philippon Research Institute. She was immediately put in touch with a senior staff scientist, who invited the student to visit SPRI and talk about her idea.

At about the same time, a SPRI board member also had an idea. “We had this great resource of doctors, researchers, and engineers, and we should be sharing these resources with our community,” she said.

SPRI staff members, scientists, and physicians had been involved in the Vail Valley community for almost three decades, but that involvement was about to reach a new level.


The seventh-grade student was Sydney Sappenfield, and her science fair study was an examination of tendon graft strength used for ACL reconstruction. She got answers and advice from SPRI staff members, and she was allowed to use SPRI’s lab and equipment to conduct her testing.

Sydney and her science project went on to win first place in the Colorado-Wyoming Junior Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting. Her first experience with SPRI was an indication of bigger things to come—for Sydney, for SPRI, and for the Vail Valley community.


The SPRI Board Member who had the vision for a community outreach program was Senenne Philippon, who now chairs SPRI’s Education and Public Outreach Committee (EPOC). EPOC was formed to inspire elementary, middle, and high school students to become more involved in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

When Mrs. Philippon first approached physicians at The Steadman Clinic and scientists at SPRI about sharing their expertise and resources, more than 20 volunteered. Twice that many have participated since.

 “The program started in 2011 by inviting fifth-graders in Eagle County elementary schools to tour our labs,” says Mrs. Philippon. “We also got involved with the middle schools by working with the students through scientific presentations, mentoring of student projects, and involvement in science fairs.”  

At the high school level, SPRI/EPOC’s Science Club is a gateway to research and higher education. Two students from each participating Eagle County high school are selected, and each student team is required to develop a study, determine timelines, submit progress reports, and make a final presentation.

Throughout the year, Science Club members are given the opportunity to attend lectures at SPRI to expand their understanding of the research process.


Travis Turnbull, Ph.D. is Deputy Director and Senior Engineer/Scientist in the Department of BioMedical Engineering at SPRI. He and SPRI staff member Kelly Stoycheff help coordinate EPOC activities and monitor the number of participating schools and students.

More than 2,300 area students have participated in the EPOC program since its inception, including 40 students in the Science Club. During the current academic year alone, students from seven elementary schools, four middle schools, and five high schools are involved.

As a high school junior, Sydney and her Science Club teammate Kaylie Evans took on another research initiative—an examination of how trochlear depth (depth of a pulley-like structure) relates to contact pressure in the knee joint.

“We learned a lot about the scientific process, including its constraints,” says Sydney.  “We had to come up with our own research topic. We worked in a lab, watched doctors perform a simulated surgery, and even conducted a mock surgery of our own. Then we presented our results to a panel of SPRI doctors and scientists. They asked hard questions, but they also complimented us on the job we did.”


Sydney, now a senior, has been accepted at Johns Hopkins University for the fall 2017 semester. She will enroll in a neuroscience pre-med program and will be a candidate for the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship. The research she conducted at SPRI is among her credentials.

Other high school students who participated in the EPOC program are also making their way to some of the most prestigious universities in the country, including Stanford, Georgia Tech, Cal Poly, Florida State, Baylor, and Denver.

Sydney’s advice to other students about getting involved with the EPOC program: “I would tell them absolutely to do it if they get a chance. If you think you are interested in medicine or science, it’s a great way to see what those disciplines are actually like. You’ll learn about asking the right questions, the amount of work it requires, and the importance of getting your work in on time.”


Sydney shares the credit for her achievements with her parents, Ross and Heather Sappenfield. Ross is the Science Department Chair for the Upper School at Vail Mountain School, where he has taught for 26 years. Heather has a master’s degree, taught at the high school level, and is the author of two books.

“I have been so impressed with the SPRI physicians and scientists who have been willing to give back to the Vail Valley community,” says Heather. “They took in a seventh-grade student, helped her, and have been invested in a continuing relationship with Sydney and other students in the EPOC program. She now has a love of research that had its genesis in her work at SPRI.”


Has the thought of coming back to Vail someday as a SPRI Fellow or staff member ever crossed Sydney’s mind?

“I’ve definitely thought about it. It would be awesome to have that opportunity. Right now, I’m leaning toward becoming an orthopaedic surgeon, but I might end up doing something I didn’t even know existed. I’ll keep an open mind and see what comes along.”

That’s how Sydney Sappenfield’s scientific mind works, and the EPOC program will encourage others to think the same way.

What’s Next for EPOC?

“The goal of the program is the same as when EPOC was formed, but it’s become more ambitious,” says Senenne Philippon. “We would like to take the program a step further by helping develop future professionals in the medical field, especially those in the Science Club.”

“Also, we are developing a summer high school Stem Cell Research Program that would eventually include science teachers and interested students throughout Colorado. The program could go national with five years.”

“We want to give back to our community and to continue to elevate the success of our community as a whole by providing the best health care and offering the best opportunities to our youth.” ​

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