Journeys Into Physiology: An Academic Life

Journeys Into Physiology: An Academic Life

In this series, my goal is to provide insight into life as a graduate research student. Since beginning my graduate academic career at the University of Florida, I have learned many things which have improved my abilities as a scientist, and also a “communicator” of science. The last role, a communicator of science, is as important a title as simply a “scientist.” This is simply due to the fact that I find it quite worrisome that I (as well as others) may find out something new, something fascinating, something paradigm-shifting, that goes unnoticed by the world outside academia. What is all our scholarship worth if not to go towards improving the lives of others and helping other scientists to build upon our own work?

Thus, documenting my own journey — through the physiological sciences and University life — is something I hope can shed light into how great of an area of study human physiology (exercise physiology to be more specific) can be. Health and wellness apply to us all.

In addition to sharing pure “science”, this series will also serve as an “advice” column to hopeful student scientists. I don’t claim to know all (or even many) of the answers on how to be a successful learner, but spending enough time in this area has at least given me some anecdotes that may be helpful.

Overall, I hope “Journeys” can be a lens into the life of a student (me!) and, in the least, an entertaining narrative. Enjoy!

P.S. Most of these posts will have appeared previously on our University Department’s Graduate Student Research Blog. I’m trying to spread them across multiple outlets in hopes of gaining an audience and a greater perspective!

Why Study Physiology?

Even in 347 B.C, Plato understood that “lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” Now, over 2,000 years later, these principles are still understood and accepted as dogma. What is more, scientific progress has allowed us to see the exact reasons as to why exercise is so important to human health and well-being.

In the Applied Physiology and Kinesiology Department (APK) and Center for Exercise Science (CES) at UF, our aim is to fully understand the human body, how it responds to various stressors (exercise), and the exact mechanisms that underlie these responses. Involved in our research process is the study of short term (acute) and longer term (chronic) responses to different types of exercise; whether it be the vigorous blast of a HIIT session or the slow burn of a resistance training protocol. Understanding the cellular, molecular, and tissue-level responses and adaptations that occur with exercise pave the way for APK researchers to apply these models to various health and disease states. Indeed, groundbreaking work in many chronic diseases has been done by UF faculty in APK.

Why take an interest in physiology? Sure, conducting science is fun and rewarding in its own right. Discovering new facts, whether at the bench or conversing over beer at the Swamp, caters to out human desire to explain the unexplainable, to develop and then hopefully prove our hypotheses as correct (and then publish, publish, publish!). My own attraction to exercise science arose out of a life-long passion for the sport of running. I thought perhaps, by learning the principles of exercise training and fundamentals of human physiology, I could reach more of my potential in the activities I loved to do and become a better athlete. A degree path in exercise physiology was initially a desire to “scratch my own itch” so to speak. However, along the way, I realized that this new abundance of knowledge could both benefit myself, but also be used to help others reach a higher state of human health and well-being.

Thus, is the motto of the CES; to “improve human health by advancing knowledge through research.” Whether by maintaining optimal health in individuals looking to improve well-being, or by delaying age and disease-related declines in physiological function, APK utilizes a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to science. Basic and applied researchers are both necessary to accomplish this task, as small-scale discovery is useless without large-scale application, and vice-versa.

Rigorous, clean, methodical science is a must. However, and more importantly, the job of scientists and students alike is to communicate their knowledge and passion for scientific research in an interesting and understandable manner. Of course, scientists realize the importance of their own research. The goal, in this information-overloaded age, is to convince the public that THEY should care about our research too. The topics we study at APK are not just of interest to students and faculty — they are (or should be) of utmost priority to the health and well-being of society. What we study at APK has the potential to impact human health and many of the diseases that ail society — on a community and a global scale. Indeed, many UF researchers have published ground-breaking work in the areas of chronic diseases. Applied physiology is meant to denote just that — an application to a cause greater than our department — an application to the foundation of scientific discourse and discovery.

At the Heart of It All

2,838,240,000. This is about the number of times your heart will beat throughout your lifetime if you live to be 75 years of age. Millions of coordinated pulses delivering oxygenated blood throughout 100,000 miles (laid end to end) of vascular infrastructure. The muscular aorta, the main life line providing nourishing blood down the vascular tree — to oxygen-hungry capillary beds which nourish tissues responsible for me writing this very sentence. The adaptive miracles of skeletal muscle pumps and one-way valves permit optimal flow through our body despite gravity and upright posture. We’ve developed mechanisms to restrict blood to non-essential organs while we exercise so we can deliver it to areas that need it the most, a concept we like to give the fancy name “functional sympatholysis.”

Luckily, we have developed the methods and mechanisms to understand the integrated physiology and pathophysiology of our unique cardiovascular system. This wasn’t always the case. Ancient Egyptians had no conception of a circulatory system — largely considering the heart a “standalone” organ — believing the heart to be the center of intelligence and life itself. Many ancient philosophers and medical scholars held this belief as well — and from them we gained the concepts of the “four humors” and ideas of emotions originating from the heart. These beliefs still have a foothold in our modern culture — be it through poems, songs, and our emotions. The cultural idea of feelings such as love and sadness originating “from the heart” have not been discarded — but we are knowledgeable enough now to know the difference between mere rhetoric and hard physiological fact.

We now know that diseases of the cardiovascular system arise not from defects in the balance of bodily humors — but rather from conditions such as plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis), high blood pressure due to of aging, poor diets, environmental toxins, or stiffening and loss of elasticity in the blood vessels.

Stiffening of the blood vessels and their subsequent (dys)function is largely what we are currently study in the Integrative Cardiovascular Physiology Lab (ICPL). One of our aims is to understand the processes and lifestyle factors first, better associated with arterial stiffening. While diet and age play their respective roles, so do apparently unrelated diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Many individuals have comorbid (present along with one another) conditions such as obesity and diabetes — which may exacerbate the risks of cardiovascular disease. Vascular stiffening is the result disease interplay with complex biochemical and mechanical processes that change the ability of the body to circulate blood effectively and efficiently; so, one can see how this can lead to further complications later in life. A quality life depends on a quality delivery system.

This is where we can intervene. Using knowledge of the mechanisms involved in vascular stiffening, our lab tests and develops interventions that may counteract deleterious effects of aging, diet, and disease on our vasculature. Our favorite? Exercise.

Aerobic exercise is a well-known intervention to prevent vascular stiffening, lower blood pressure, and improve overall cardiovascular fitness with aging and other diseases. What is more, we now know that aerobic exercise started later in life can reverse vascular stiffening and improve the function of the endothelium. Cardiovascular disease does not represent an end-point for which there is not cure. Currently, we are studying whether high intensity interval training (HIIT) can be more effective than a traditional (more moderate intensity) aerobic exercise training condition. HIIT is time efficient — making it more enjoyable for many people — which is why it has become so popular in the literature and the media. The reason for HIIT being more beneficial than moderate aerobic exercise lies in its ability to (and this is what we are testing) enhance the amount of blood flow during a particular exercise session, leading to enhanced adaptations in the blood vessels and cardiovascular system.

To measure improvements, we rely on non-invasive ultrasound imaging of the arteries to study structure and function. We can study transmission of blood pressure waveforms throughout various sections of the arterial tree in order to gain insight into how an intervention affected vessel elasticity. More invasive measures of blood parameters are also key to gaining a more molecular understanding of what is going on in the body in response to exercise training. Nobody said understanding physiology was simple.

For me, the attractiveness in studying cardiovascular physiology lies in fact that in every one of us, there is a beating heart, networks of blood vessels, all with similar physiology — working to keep us alive during times of sedentarism as well as stress. This system is integral, and it is fascinating. My desire is that, the more I learn about mechanisms of dysfunction, the more I can build upon and develop ways to help people live to their most optimal state of function. The paradigm that aging is synonomous with disease is slowly being discarded in favor of an active and healthy model. Preventable diseases such as diabetes and obesity, we now know, can favorably respond to intervention. It is my hope that our lab produces quality research in this area and advances the discussion on cardiovascular health into areas currently unexplored.

Science, Fake News, and the Search for Truth

If you’re interested in science, you’re interested in the truth. Why else do we adhere to the rigorous standards of the scientific methods — those steps of making an observation, hypothesizing about the problem at hand, testing the hypothesis with sets of experiments, and making conclusions based on your results. Sometimes, this requires totally revising your original hypothesis. But, this is how we learn — both what works, and often just as important, what doesn’t. Negative results, while often shunned by the media and left unpublished by scientific journals, lead us to conclude things about our research that can be just as informative. For instance — if we implement an exercise training study aimed at improving blood glucose profiles or cardiovascular fitness of diabetic subjects, and after 8 weeks observe no significant difference (for this we use the decisive p-value .05) in our experimental group, then we can conclude that this training regimen fails to work for this cohort. While we haven’t found something that may be beneficial, we’ve found something that isn’t, and can revise our experiments accordingly.

Unfortunately, negative results often fly outside the radar of media outlets, and even scientists are hesitant to publish or report results because, lets face it, they aren’t as interesting as a bold and sexy new finding. We want to see the magical “10-minute workout” that drastically improves fitness, the gene editing technique that promises to be the future of disease prevention. It’s bold findings like these that aspiring scientists dream of. At heart, I don’t think most scientists are driven by the need for confirmation or fame (although it’s nice when it comes). However, the reason we do science, is to disseminate our results and hopefully make a positive impact on the scientific community. Our discovery of truth can be seen as a service to society — providing them with information they may not have gotten otherwise; information they can implement. This truth can also help other scientists who can build upon our research and design new experiments, discover even more information, and move the scientific agenda forward.

However, to properly drive science forward and ensure that the public is receiving quality, robust, and valuable knowledge, we must hold truth in the highest esteem.

But what is “truth.” As I see it, truth in science means that the results we have observed in an experiment are really what occurs, and will reliably occur, should we repeat the experiment again. Replicable results are one indication of truth — it shows us that the results we have seen occurred because of our intervention, not some source of error or variability in the design. Truth also mandates that our results are free of bias — which may occur due to the experiment or due to researchers’ expectations and analysis used.

When we read research, we take it as an article of faith that what is reported is “true.” The limitations section, properly constructed, will let us in on what the researchers think may be a source of experimental error or bias — basically a description of the experiments imperfections (of which there are usually many). It is our job as scientists to ensure that we both read with scrutiny and publish with just as much skepticism. No experiment is perfect, and no result is “law”.

This is where recently, “journalism” has failed in science. The phrase concept of “fake news” is hardly new, but the phrase is, and the use of the actual news is increasingly relevant. While often political, used to describe the spread of fake stories that appear to be news to influence political agenda or alter public opinion, fake news is not limited to goings on at Capitol Hill. Science receives its fair share of coverage that, in one way or another, doesn’t qualify as clean journalism.

The term “fake” here may be too harsh — most scientific journalism or headlines aren’t inherently fake in the sense that the results are fabricated out of thin air. This has happened, but it is rare. The problem with science journalism (think click-bait headline in the Huffington Post) is that there is a gap between the “truth” discovered by research labs and the “truth” reported in the media. Often this presents itself as a grand headline; “Meat Causes Cancer” or “Weight Lifting Leads to a Longer Life.” These titles grasp reader’s attention, doing their job for the media outlet by gaining clicks and shares. For a public not properly educated in science, however, these headlines are misleading at best, and at worst, unfounded. Information from a respectable news source, expected to be true, may cause behavior change in individuals and even influence public policy. If this change is based on lackadaisical reporting– then we have a serious issue at hand.

Why does “fake” news in science occur. The first source may be a case of “telephone” — that the truth is lost in translation from scientist to journalist. In this instance, the journalist may be unaware that the information being reported is not quite as it was found to be. While sympathy in this case is warranted, it remains the job of journalists to check, and re-check, their work. A second and more heinous source of fake news occurs because of a blatant exaggeration of science; for the sake of gaining reads at the expense of scientific truth. In this case, the journalist, the scientist, or both are involved in taking one primary finding and blowing it up into a grand generalization of scientific truth. This, we cannot accept. While this may not be “lying” in strictest sense, it surely isn’t telling the truth as it is.

As undergraduate and graduate students in training, what can we do about this? Unfortunately, the mis-reporting at the popular media level is out of our control for the most part. What we can do is ensure that our research is communicated as clearly as possible to those responsible for putting out headlines. Ideally, we can communicate our own research at the public level (outside scholarly journals) as a primary source. Who better to educate the public on experimental findings than the one doing the experiment. From us, this requires knowing what, how, and why we are doing the research, and knowingly how to disseminate our results in an understandable way.

For this, we must hold the truth in the highest regard. Having seen numerous headlines lately that grossly overstate findings from a study, I have made it my goal to never do the same of my own and other’s research. Sometimes, this may come at the cost of saying “I don’t know” if presented with a question about a topic I know nothing about. Better uninformed that ill-informed, in my opinion. As students, we are taught how to properly conduct science — let’s use this for the greater good. I promise, you will be prouder of the research you do if you know that, firstly, it is conducted in a controlled and rigorous manner and secondly, if you explain your results in a way that will be of benefit to the public. Isn’t that what science is all about?

Welcome to Graduate School

For those of you who currently attend the University of Florida as an undergraduate or graduate student, or faculty, please, lend me your time for this brief intro– the story will become relatable soon.

For those who attend elsewhere, don’t attend, or plan to attend school at some point in the future, lend me your ears, for mine is a story from which you may draw a parallel to your own life.

The story (fast-forwarded 18 years to when I started college) begins in the small town of Highland Heights, Kentucky — located just around 820 miles north on Interstate-75 from where our writer lives now — Gainesville, Florida. Here we find Northern Kentucky University, a small (but Division I) school nestled among a town with a population of just over 7,000, a number that is barely one-half the graduate student population at UF and around one-fifth the population of its undergraduate student body. NKU, our mascot, the Norse!

My undergraduate affiliation was a place of academic rigor, a place of valuable learning, but on a small scale. Class sizes of no more than 30 were the norm, and my ability to interact with professors and even become involved in some smaller-scale research projects was a product of the school having adequate resources, but a seemingly inadequate utilization of many of them. This balance favored my initiative and curious m.o as I navigated college.

I will pause the story here to provide some insight. No matter what the size of your institution, your undergraduate years MUST be a time in which you search and take advantage of most opportunities that come your way, provided they at least in some way “fit” your trajectory, but sometimes even when they don’t. Express your interest in research to professors, go out of your way to discuss science with them over email, during office hours, or after class. Explore the funding and volunteer opportunities through your college and your major. While these may not all seem like they are “building your resume” in concrete terms, they are building your internal resume and most often, your resume among mentors, professors, and staff! These are the people you want on your side. No one is going to lay opportunities in your lap, and from my experience, simply sending an email to a professor can have a lasting impact and lead to wonderful opportunities. Take a risk, a risk which really, has no downside.

Spending four years at NKU allowed me to build a base of knowledge, really the primary function of an undergraduate education. However, this smaller-school “mentality” became the norm for me, which was both good and bad, depending on how you look at it. For example, I became comfortable in many classes, especially in the later years, leading to stagnant study habits. I still loved to learn and did more than enough to indulge my curiosity in and outside of class, but the ability to really focus on deep studying was lost sometime around my senior year. I attribute this to the lack of being challenged. I don’t mean to say classes were easy, but unfortunately, my required internship and one sports nutrition class didn’t necessitate that I build upon or utilize great study habits. On a positive note, I was able to build many in-depth relationships and “networks” with professors and faculty. In many ways, I was able to get 1-on-1 instruction and guidance from “mentors.” This is something rather rare in undergraduate education that I was thankful for in my transformative years.

Then, I packed up. Headed south. To the swamp we go.

The most noticeable change from my prior academic institution was, the campus. Namely, the size. The sprawling metropolis that is UF (especially on game-days) was something that intimidated me on my visit and amazed me when I finally moved there to begin school. On a normal day at NKU, it took me 10 minutes to walk from my dorm to the furthest building on campus, including stopping for Starbucks on the way. At UF, I no longer lived on campus. I had to learn the bus routes, knowing where and when they stopped and just how I would get myself to the lab on time. After a few weeks, this routine became my “new normal.” Nonetheless, it was a transition that required some time and mental flexibility.

Balancing class and lab work was also somewhat of an initiation. Now with a full time job as a research assistant, I had duties on top of being just a student. But, a note to all; more responsibility does NOT imply the need to sacrifice other hobbies, outside life, and fulfilling relationships. More responsibilities just meant I had to manage my time better and learn techniques that would allow increased efficiency in all areas of life. When you can manage this, all of your duties become exciting tasks to accomplish and life becomes even more fulfilling. Let me tell you, the dopamine rush those first two weeks was quite incredible — and it persists most days now. Graduate school is a time of increasing output while similarly trying not to implode — all while maintaining the joy that comes with learning and achieving.

Good study habits had to be learned, relearned, and then modified to fit my “new normal”. Simply put, I would not be able to function in this new environment if I didn’t alter my study techniques. You’re probably tired of cheesy anecdotes about resilience, but I quickly learned that the mind is readily malleable (I believe some scientists call this ‘plasticitiy’). Plasticity was necessary to thrive in a new and competitive environment, one in which, as I’m sure current undergraduate and graduate students know, everyone is just as smart as you, but seems smarter. I will use the word “intimidated” once more to describe the feeling I had for the first two semesters of graduate school. You can learn from my experience here when I say, first, DON’T be intimidated even when you want to. There may be people smarter than you, but this is no reason you can’t achieve equal mental superiority. With time, often comes knowledge.

I used my feelings of intimidation to learn. I went to lectures (there were so many, another difference from my time at NKU). I attended seminars on diabetes, obesity, muscular dystrophy, physical therapy, spinal cord injury, sarcomeres, calcium, and kinases, the list goes on. I attended cardiology grand rounds where I sat among distinguished Ph.D./M. D’s and pretended I belonged. It was here that I learned the utility of properly timed head nods. After a while, I, and you will too, began to realize that these people may know a bit more, but are no more capable of being “smart” than I was. Experience was the main difference, and I was determined to gain as much experience (and still am determined) as possible.

Take advantage of every opportunity.

Now comfortable in my lab, I am nevertheless still adjusting to “grad student life” and learning everyday what it will take to be successful. If you are thinking about going to graduate school, use my experience as an assurance that, if you really have a desire to continue your education, you can do so, anywhere you want. At any given time, there are people and peers willing to lend you advice, wisdom, and free coffee. Take advantage of it all (especially the free coffee), and form your own path through academia, or if not academia, a career that you enjoy.

Transitions are tough, especially ones as drastic as mine, from a small-town university with very little funded research — to an “ivory tower” of academia.

I am in a great place right now, surrounded by great (and super smart) people. I encourage you to soak up every bit of knowledge from those around you. Create a blueprint of what you truly want out of your career — and stick to it.

And, if at any point along the way you are offered free coffee, take it.

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