WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Driver fatigue -- something as simple as drowsiness -- played a role in as many as 35 percent of the 179 motor vehicle accidents referred to a Walla Walla hospital trauma center during a recent four-year period.

That somewhat startling fact was one of many that Whitman College senior Melinda Davis reported during the fourth annual Whitman Undergraduate Conference in April. Davis, a biology major from Stevenson, Washington, was one of more than 140 students who gave presentations on a wide variety of research and creative projects.

Davis began her research last summer after receiving a Whitman Parent's Council Internship to work at the Kathryn Severyns Dement Sleep Disorders Center at St. Mary Medical Center. In addition to her research, she assisted with a variety of projects, from observing a week of overnight sleep studies to setting the foundation for a study on changes in blood pressure after treatment of obstructive sleep apnea.

According to her retrospective review of medical charts, driver fatigue was a definite factor in 16 percent of the motor vehicle accidents referred to the St. Mary trauma center from January 1996 through April 2000. Driver fatigue was probably a component in 35 percent of the cases, Davis added. Some systematic studies show that drivers are more likely to be fatigued than intoxicated when accidents occur.

Davis says her study shows the need for two measures in buttressing efforts to reduce fatigue-related motor vehicle accidents. Of paramount importance is the need for increased sleep education for drivers and the public at large. There also is a need to re-educate emergency response personnel on the necessity of collecting data related to the role of fatigue in motor vehicle accidents.

Davis, who is using her research as her senior thesis, will also give a poster presentation on her work in June when the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS) holds its 16th annual meeting in Seattle. "Melinda's work is an excellent example of undergraduate research," noted Dr. Richard Simon, director of St. Mary's Sleep Disorders Center and a 1972 Whitman graduate. "We helped Melinda get started, but the research itself was her work." One professional journal on sleep disorders has also shown interest in publishing a paper on Davis's research.

Dr. Simon plans to participate in the APSS meetings (June 8-13), which will attract leading sleep researchers from around the world. As part of the meetings, he also plans to host a one-day "brainstorming session" on the Whitman campus. That session, which Dr. Simon said could include as many as 20 of his colleagues, will focus on the possibility of making Walla Walla a greater focal point for sleep disorders research. Funneling significant sleep research dollars to Walla Walla could make a multitude of research opportunities available to Whitman faculty and students, Dr. Simon said.

Davis is not the only Whitman student who has benefited during the past year from work at the local Sleep Disorders Center. Erica Roth, a junior psychology major from Walla Walla, was a full-time employee at the center last summer, examining patient compliance in treatment of obstructive sleep apnea with continuous positive airway pressure.

Based on her work, Roth was one of just 16 undergraduates from around the nation to receive a fellowship to study as an apprentice this summer at the Brown University School of Medicine's prestigious Sleep Research Lab. Research at the lab, which is located at the E.P. Bradley Hospital in Providence, R.I., takes place under the direction of Brown University professor of psychiatry Mary A. Carskadon, one of the world's leading authorities on sleep research.

Summer research at the Sleep Research Lab is focused on assessment of three factors that influence adolescent sleep patterns: circadian timing, sleep regulatory processes, and pubertal development. Apprentices are involved in multiple facets of data collection, reduction and entry.