The female athlete: A balancing act between success and health

By Jessica Piasecki, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, @JessCoulson90

A longer version of this article originally appeared in Physiology News.

There is a very fine line between training, competition, and recovery for the elite athletes (1). For female athletes, they have an extra balance to take into consideration: the menstrual cycle.

The monthly cycles

The menstrual cycle is a natural process and is essential to maintain bone health and fertility. It can start from the age of 12 and continues until the onset of menopause around the age of 49-52.

The cycle occurs over a period of 28 days. The first 14 days are known as the follicular phase. During this phase, around day 10, the hormones oestrogen, LH (luteinizing hormone) and FSH (follicular stimulating hormone) rise, reaching their peak around day 14.

LH reaches a level double than that of both oestrogen and FSH. After day 14 LH levels rapidly drop off while oestrogen and FSH fall off more slowly, over a 5 day period. The second 14 days are known as the luteal phase and there is a gradual increase in another hormone, progesterone, which reaches a peak around day 22 and returns to base levels at day 28.

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Bone stability and structure

Of these three hormones, oestrogen is a key regulator of bone resorption, without oestrogen there would be an excess of bone being broken down over new bone being formed. Bone is in a state of constant turnover, with the help of two types of bone cells (osteoblasts and osteoclasts). Osteoblasts are involved in bone formation, while osteoclasts are involved in bone resorption.

Bone resorption occurs at a much higher rate than formation; bone resorption takes just 30 days whereas the bone remodelling cycle takes 4 months. Therefore, a slight imbalance can lead to a bone fracture very quickly (2).

More is not always better

Elite female athletes, particularly those involved in sports that usually adopt a leaner physique with low body fat, are at a greater risk of disordered eating. The reasons for this disordered eating could be external pressures from teams, coaches and sponsors, or the athletes themselves having the belief that the leaner and lighter they are, the quicker they will be. These pressures may also cause the athlete to push their body to further extremes.

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Without the necessary energy intake, the menstrual cycle will most likely become irregular and eventually cease (which is known as amenorrhea). Amenorrhea causes the levels of oestrogen to become reduced, leaving a disproportionate ratio of osteoblasts and osteoclasts, and a higher rate of bone resorption.

This may ultimately lead to bone injuries, (the precursor to osteoporosis), or even osteoporosis at a very young age, making any further career achievements even more difficult.

These three symptoms (disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis) became more prevalent in the 1990s and were termed ‘The Female Athlete Triad’ in 1997 by the American College of Sports Medicine. It has been estimated that only 50% of trained physicians are knowledgeable about the female athlete triad (3). More recently the triad has been regrouped within a term known as RED-S (Relative energy deficient syndrome); deemed to result from continual disordered eating. Being in a state of energy deficiency for a long duration can disrupt many processes within the body, including the cardiovascular, digestive and hormonal . Redefining the RED-S also allows male athletes who present with similar issues to be included (4).

Current research has looked at the differing effects of the components of the triad on injuries, and bone and muscle health. At Manchester Metropolitan University, we have carried out our own research on some of the UK’s most renowned female endurance runners, investigating the effects of altered menstrual cycle on bone health. Athletes with amenorrhea presented with a greater endocortical circumference (the outer circumference of the inner cortical bone in the tibia (lower leg) and radius (forearm) than controls. Only the athletes with regular menstrual cycles (eumenorrheic) had a greater cortical area, in the tibia and radius, compared to controls. The athletes with amenorrhea had thinner bones (i.e. larger but not denser). We are working to better understand the issues, so accurate diagnosis will become more frequent.

What we really need is education at a young age, as most athletes become familiar with the triad only once they have been diagnosed with a bone injury. If athletes are made aware of the symptoms and issues around the triad before they occur, then nutrition and menstrual cycles can be more closely monitored as they progress through their athletic careers.


Read the full-length version of this article in our magazine, Physiology News.

References

  1. Barnett, A (2006). Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes does it help? Sports Med (36), 781-96
  2. Agerbaek, M. O., Eriksen, E. F., Kragstrup, J., Mosekilde, L. and Melsen, F. (1991) A reconstruction of the remodelling cycle in normal human cortical iliac bone. Bone Miner, 12 (2), pp. 101-12.
  3. Curry, E, Logan, C, Ackerman, K, McInnia K, Matzkin, E (2015) Female athlete triad awareness among multispecialty Physicians. Sports Med Open. 1:38.
  4. Tenforde, AS, Parziale, A, Popp, K, Ackerman, K. (2017) Low Bone mineral density in male athletes is associated with bone stress injuries at anatomic sites with greater trabecular composition. Am J Sports Med. DOI: 10.1177/0363546517730584

Tight squeeze: a new way to get larger drugs into the brain

by Michelle Pizzo & Robert Thorne, University of Wisconsin Madison, USA

The brain and spinal cord are a difficult body parts to fix. Only seven percent of drugs for diseases of the brain and spinal cord succeed, whereas fifteen percent of drugs for other parts of the body do (1). New research published in The Journal of Physiology may have found part of the solution: a method for getting bigger drugs into the brain.

The issue is, in part, that we still lack a detailed understanding of the complicated structure and physiology of the brain’s cells and fluids, including the communication between the cells and fluids (2). This limited knowledge has further compromised our understanding of the delivery and distribution of drugs in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord, abbreviated as CNS), particularly for large-molecule drugs (bigger than about one nanometer) which are unable to cross the blood-brain barrier to reach the brain tissue.

A tight fit: getting big antibody drugs into tiny brain spaces

Among the best examples of promising large-molecule therapeutics are antibodies, the weapons of our immune system. They work by recognizing a part of a molecule (called an antigen). Indeed, five of the top ten drugs by revenue are antibodies (3).

Besides being great potential drugs, antibodies are very abundant in the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord (called cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF) (4). Antibodies in the CSF may play an important role in the brain’s immune system and contribute to central nervous system autoimmune disorders (like multiple sclerosis) that cause our immune system to attack our own body.

Because antibodies (and other large-molecule protein therapeutics) are 10 times the size of small-molecule drugs, it has long been thought that their distribution in the brain will in most cases be much more limited than small-molecule drugs (5).

However, a recent study published in The Journal of Physiology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison by Michelle Pizzo, Robert Thorne, and their colleagues (6) has uncovered an unappreciated key mechanism governing antibody transport within the CNS that may ultimately allow these big proteins to access much more of the brain from the CSF than previously thought.

This has important implications as there are numerous clinical trials that are ongoing in the United States for treatment of brain cancers with antibody drugs.

Go with the flow: using the fluids of the brain for antibody drug delivery

Injecting antibodies of two different sizes into the CSF of rodents, the researchers found two main mechanisms of transport—1) slower movement (called diffusion) in between the tightly packed brain cells, and 2) quicker transport along tubular spaces around blood vessels, (called perivascular spaces) (6).

As expected, they found that the slower movement of these large molecules by diffusion was quite limited, whereas the smaller antibodies penetrated further. Aspects of the quicker transport around the blood vessels appeared to be independent of size; both the smaller and larger antibodies could reach deep into the brain along the walls of blood vessels in a short amount of time.

This is great news for the CSF delivery of biotherapeutics, including protein drugs like antibodies. The quicker perivascular flow along these tubular pathways is thought to exist in humans, so such flows are likely translatable/scalable to the clinic. Slower, diffusive transport, on the other hand, does not scale across species. In other words, if effective drug diffusion is limited to a distance of one mm in the rat brain, it will also be limited to one mm in the much larger human brain. This distance may not be enough to treat most brain diseases.

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A large, full-size antibody protein (green) infused into the fluid bathing the brain (cerebrospinal fluid) reaches deep into the brain along the spaces around blood vessels (red). Nuclei of all the brain/blood vessel cells are labeled in blue. (Photo credit: Michelle Pizzo)

They also found that the smaller antibody was able to get into more of these tubular perivascular spaces compared to the larger antibody, which meant a significantly poorer overall delivery was obtained for these full-sized antibodies. Two questions arose from this finding—1) what barrier is causing this size-dependent entry into the perivascular space, and 2) can the barrier be altered to improve delivery?

Let me in: identification of a new barrier between the CSF and brain and a strategy to open it

Pizzo and her colleagues found that a layer of cells wrapping around blood vessels on the surface of the brain, between the CSF and the perivascular spaces, is a likely candidate for the size-dependent barrier.

They suggested that pores or openings in these cells may contribute to a sieving effect, allowing smaller molecules into the perivascular space but making entry more difficult for larger molecules. A method that has previously been used to open cell barriers is to administer a hyperosmolar (which more or less means, concentrated) solution that makes these cells give up their water to dilute the surrounding solution. Thus the water exits the cells (by osmosis) and causes them to shrink, allowing gaps between cells and pores in the cells to open. Pizzo and colleagues then reasoned that if they were to administer this solution into the CSF, the larger antibodies would enter the perivascular spaces better.

This is essentially what they found; the larger antibody had significantly greater access (about 50%) to the perivascular spaces when it was delivered into the CSF with a hyperosmolar solution.

Numerous studies of protein drugs administered into the CSF are ongoing for brain cancer and childhood metabolic diseases that affect the brain (called neuropathic lysosomal storage disorders). Thus, an improved understanding of how these large molecules move through the brain is critical.

This new research has shed light on how these antibodies use different types of transport to move between the CSF and the brain in rodents, revealing that fast perivascular transport can reach deep into the brain and may offer the best hope for translation to humans.

Even more exciting is their new hypothesis for the cellular barrier that may regulate entry into these perivascular spaces. Manipulating this ‘barrier’ could lead to improved methods for delivery of drugs to the brain and spinal cord.

References

  1. Pangalos MN, Schechter LE, Hurko O (2007) Drug development for CNS disorders: strategies for balancing risk and reducing attrition. Nat Rev Drug Discov 6(7):521–32.
  2. Thorne RG (2014) Primer on Central Nervous System Structure/Function and the Vasculature, Ventricular System, and Fluids of the BRain. Drug Delivery to the Brain: Physiological Concepts, Methodologies, and Approaches, eds Hammarlund-Udenaes M, de Lange E, Thorne RG (Springer-Verlag, New York), pp 685–707.
  3. Lindsley CW (2015) 2014 global prescription medication statistics: strong growth and CNS well represented. ACS Chem Neurosci 6(4):505–506.
  4. Davson H, Segal MB (1996) Physiology of the CSF and blood-brain barriers (CRC Press).
  5. Wolak DJ, Thorne RG (2013) Diffusion of macromolecules in the brain: implications for drug delivery. Mol Pharm 10(5):1492–504.
  6. Pizzo M, et al. (2017) Intrathecal antibody distribution in the rat brain: surface diffusion, perivascular transport, and osmotic enhancement of delivery. J Physiol:Accepted manuscript.

Exercise, stress and Star Wars: Best of 2017 roundup

Happy New Year! In 2018, we look forward to more physiology fun, and to giving you an insight into the exciting new developments in the Science of Life!

Physio-what, you ask? Take a look at our animation below introducing physiology! Scroll down to find out more about a centuries-old shark patrolling the deep Arctic Ocean, how being active gives children’s hearts a head start for life, and why it’s time scientists took back control from exercise gurus, in our best of 2017 roundup!

1. Exercise scientists should fight the exercise gurus

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Exercise gurus build strong rapports with their audience to encourage commitment, but they will often simplify a large body of scientific evidence to back up their advice.

In this post, Gladys Onambele-Pearson and Kostas Tsintzas discuss the risks of letting exercise gurus disseminate exercise science to the public, and why it may be time for scientists to become the actual celebrities.

2. The Myth of a Sport Scientist

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There is a mismatch between the perceptions and reality of what a sport scientist is and what skills this career entails: just because exercise scientists use models of sport performance, exercise bouts or physical activity sessions, doesn’t mean that there aren’t complex scientific skills, theories, analytics and techniques behind the work.

Read more from sport scientist Hannah Moir in this post.

3. Shark Diary, Episode I: On the trails of the Greenland shark

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How do you keep lab chemicals cool when there’s no fridge in your room? Well, if you’re in chilly Denmark, you could just hang them outside your window.

Holly Shiels did just that in Copenhagen, on her way to Greenland to join a team of physiologists on a shark research mission. Their aim was to gather data on the physiology of the Greenland shark. Clarifying how these animals reach hundreds of years of age without developing diseases associated with human ageing, like cancer and heart disease, could lead to new therapies down the line, and understanding shark physiology is also important for their conservation.

Read more about the mission in this post, and check out watch below to see the researchers braving the icy waters of the North Atlantic and releasing a tagged Greenland shark.

4. Breath of the Sith: a case study on respiratory failure in a galaxy far, far away

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Have you always wondered what actually is going on behind the mask? Darth Vader’s acute respiratory failure appears to be the consequence of a number of factors, including direct thermal injury to the airways, chemical damage to the lung parenchyma caused by inhalation of smoke and volcanic dust particles, carbon monoxide poisoning, as well as secondary effects to his severe third degree burns, which seems to cover ~100 % of his total body surface area.

Read on as Ronan Berg and Ronni Plovsing make a tongue-in-cheek diagnosis of the numerous respiratory ailments of everyone’s favourite Sith Lord.

5. Exercise now, thank yourself later

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Exercise is good for the heart, but the benefits fade soon after we stop training… or so we thought. Studies so far have focused on adults, but research published last November in The Journal of Physiology reveals that exercise in early life could have lifelong benefits for heart health.

This is because young hearts are able to create new heart muscle cells in response to exercise, an ability that is mostly lost in adulthood. Glenn Wadley, Associate Professor at Deakin University and author of the study, explains the findings in this post, and makes the case for children to get active!

As if that wasn’t enough reason to exercise, being active is one of three tips that can help relieve the stress we feel for instance at the approach of exams. Watch our animation below to find out more about what stress does to our bodies, and start making good on those New Year resolutions!

Careers – no ‘one size fits all’ for scientists

A longer version of this article originally appeared in Physiology News.

‘What matters most is how well you walk through the fire’ – Charles Bukowski

The career path of scientists is oft the result of happenstance; a chance meeting at a conference, a quirk in a dataset, a change in personal circumstance. There’s no one size fits all for scientists’ careers. We sought to highlight this with several case studies to encourage you on your way.

The beauty of science is it takes you across borders
by Rebecca Dumbell, Postdoctoral Training Fellow, MRC Harwell Institute, UK

I completed my PhD from the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen in 2014. The Rowett had merged with the University a few years before I joined, and combined with the rural location at the time, this meant that it still had the feel of a research institute. Towards the end of my PhD I heard about a postdoc position coming up at the University of Lübeck in Germany through word of mouth. In a bit of a whirlwind I flew out to Germany for my interview the day after submitting my thesis, and I started the job a few months later.

Getting set up in my new job and new country was a challenge. I quickly learned that I needed a lot of documents, all from different offices located very far from each other, and they all had to be collected in a particular order. My EU passport smoothed the process and made my experience much easier than what I witnessed my non-EU colleagues go through. Within 1 week I had everything I needed, including a place to live, a bank account, health insurance and a pension plan.

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I spent almost 2 years as a postdoc in Lübeck and I really loved living in Germany. Half of my colleagues were German and the rest came from all over the world, all speaking English in the lab. This was a lot of fun and we set up things like ‘international cooking club’ and, my personal favourite, whisky club. I found that as the only native English speaker I was the go-to proofreader; this certainly improved my grammar if not the work I was checking!

I now work at the MRC Harwell Institute in Oxfordshire as a Postdoctoral Training Fellow, and again find myself in a research institute in a rural setting. This comes with its own advantages and challenges. I have to go out of my way to build on my undergraduate teaching experience. But, once identified, these issues are overcome by connecting with people at the nearby University of Oxford, and with my wider professional network.

For me the chance to work abroad is a big draw for a scientific career; it built my confidence and expanded my professional network as well as providing a great experience. Coming back to the UK was right for me at the time but I’d not rule out going abroad again.

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© The Physiological Society

‘Establishing a life outside of work has been vital in putting my work here into perspective, and makes those inevitable scientific frustrations far easier to deal with.’ – Chris Shannon, University of Texas Health Science Centre, USA

The quest for the Holy Grail of lectureship
by Gisela Helfer, Lecturer, University of Bradford, UK

After I graduated in Zoology at the University of Salzburg, Austria, I worked at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Andechs, Germany. Here I found my love for science in general and chronobiology in particular. From Andechs, I started my northwards journey, first to do a PhD at the University of Birmingham and then to postdoc at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen. Throughout my journey, I was very fortunate to meet some amazing scientists, mentors as well as peers, and it was always my ambition to succeed in academia. Six years of postdocing, three moves and two children later, I finally found the Holy Grail in beautiful Yorkshire. In March 2016, I started my permanent lectureship at the University of Bradford.

Academia has one of the longest apprenticeships that I am aware of. Undergraduate studies, plus/minus masters studies, PhD studies and then several years of postdocing. For me, this totalled to 14 years of apprenticeship. Despite this long training, I was little prepared for the job of a lecturer. Yes, I had some teaching experience. I supervised students in the lab, I occasionally lectured to undergrads and I even worked a few months as a teaching fellow. In my CV I called this ‘extensive teaching experience’ – little did I know. Because in reality I spent all my days and often nights (the joys of circadian rhythms research) in the lab or in the animal house. And I loved every minute of it!

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© Wellcome Library, London.

Now, I am rarely in the #Helferlab. The brand-new set of pipettes that I proudly bought from my first grant is now exclusively used by my students, while I spend my time rushing from place to place. I run to see undergrads or I run to one of my countless meetings.

I admit that I miss being a postdoc. I miss being in the lab from morning to evening, I miss having a supervisor who keeps me right (although my mentor at the Rowett is only a phone call away) and I miss the untroubled life of only being responsible for the next set of experiments. Of course, I do not miss the dreadful months before the contract comes to an end.

Despite all of this, I enjoy being a lecturer. While the holy grail is not as shiny and golden as I thought it would be, the journey was certainly worth it, and I would do it all over again. Next goal: professorship.


This article was compiled by Jo Edward Lewis. You can read more testimonies in the original article in our magazine, Physiology News.

Open education: a creative approach to learning and teaching

By Vivien Rolfe, Associate Head of Department, UWE Bristol, UK, @vivienrolfe

A longer version of this article originally appeared in our magazine, Physiology News.

Open education, a means of widening access to education and materials, is not a new idea. Universities and teaching institutions have been inviting the public through their doors for centuries, and in more recent times ‘open’ universities have further championed the widening of access to formal education.

Open education was a dominant philosophy and practice in the 1970s. Unstructured curricula fostered creativity and supported diversity in learning, and knowledge was shared beyond the institution. The present reiteration of open education has similar underpinning ideals: providing an education system that shares, and is more inclusive and equitable.

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Open education – from content to practice

The relationship between shared open educational resources (OERs) and emerging open education practices is a hot topic of debate. Great work within schools, colleges and universities has clearly emerged through either the generation of openly licensed content (a good starting point), or the development of open practice and pedagogy.

A widely accepted framework for practice development is David Wiley’s ‘5 R’s’ (Wiley, 2014).  They stand for Retain (you control what happens to the resources you share) through to Reuse, Revise, Remix and Redistribute. This, in my experience, is a useful concept for teachers who aspire to develop their open practice

Open practice can extend the utility of our academic work within our institution, and even beyond the walls of our universities to a wider community of learners. In the UK, some notable examples include the University of Lincoln ‘Student as Producer’ project where students engaged as co-creators of open content, and the open photography course #Phonar at the University of Coventry which invited public collaboration and led to students working with professional communities as part of their learning.

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Much of the UK activity stemmed from the 2009 – 2012 HEFCE-funded Open Educational Resource programme. Over 85 projects spanned most subject disciplines, and were seminal in building the community of open practitioners that thrives today by bringing them together in an annual conference organised by the Association of Learning Technology (#OERXX). I have reported the reach and impact of the OERs produced by these projects, and of using web marketing techniques to share content online (Rolfe, 2016).

Open practice for life science practicals

My recent work has explored open pedagogies in an attempt to address challenges facing laboratory practical teaching. Practicals are timetabled laboratory events, and it is well documented that teaching staff and technical teams struggle to address the gaps between school and university in terms of laboratory experience, for an ever-increasing number of students (Coward and Gray, 2014). Student criticisms include no buzz, repetitive nature and lack of social engagement (Wilson, Adams and Arkle, 2008).

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So in my experience, what are some of the benefits and challenges of open educational practises in practicals?

Open education projects at De Montfort University included OERs on laboratory skills. Still accessible today via the project website and YouTube, these relatively low quality materials by today’s standards, were popular with students and boosted their confidence before entering the laboratory for the first time: “[Virtual Analytical Laboratory] has been very useful in easing my nerves before lab sessions” (Biomedical Science student, Rolfe, 2009). These resources were then embedded within the timetable with students working through workbooks prior to entering the lab. Soon, students were creating video of their own laboratory work and sharing these either informally with each other through social media, or as part of the project website. The laboratory technical teams also created resources in areas they thought students particularly struggled with. One of the benefits cited by staff was they needed to spend less time repeating basic instructions as students had an overview of the fundamental skills.

Other applications of open education included students accessing resources by QR codes at different workstations to introduce them to different techniques, which helped to cater for large student numbers in the lab in a more effective way. Students were also engaged in producing multiple-choice assessment questions, later shared as OERs accompanying resources on the project website.

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Longer term, open education led to changes to the learning culture itself, with students taking control and implementing their own ideas, such as photographing histology images using iPhones for sharing as OER on the Google service Picasa, and later a Facebook discussion group. Some of the lasting impact of this work is the cross-university interest it generated – for example technology and arts students becoming interested in science projects, and the OER being available globally to support informal and formal learning, providing new insights and perspectives for students (Rolfe, 2016).

As more evidence is gathered as to the benefits and uses of OER and open practices, a new theoretical basis for open practical pedagogies may emerge. What is important is that we continue to openly share our case studies of teaching practice to build a fuller picture. That way, larger communities of teachers can grow and benefit:

“It has changed my practice in terms of whenever I’m doing anything I think how could this be an OER or how could it supplement what I’m doing”. (Microbiology lecturer).


Read the full-length version of this article in our magazine, Physiology News.

References

Coward, K., and Gray, J. V., 2014. Audit of Practical Work Undertaken Accessed 12 May 2017].

Rolfe, V., 2009. Development of a Virtual Analytical Laboratory (VAL) multimedia resource to support student transition to laboratory science at university. HEA Bioscience Case Study. pp. 1-5.

Rolfe, V., 2016.  Web Strategies for the Curation and Discovery of Open Educational Resources. Open Praxis, 8(4). [Accessed 12 May 2017].

Wiley, D., 2014. The Access Compromise and the 5th R. [online] [Accessed 12 May 2017].

Wilson, J., Adams, D. J. and Arkle, S., 2008. 1st Year Practicals–their role in developing future Bioscientists. Leeds, the Higher education Academy Centre for Bioscience. [online] [Accessed 12 May 2017].

11 networking tips to boost your career

by Hannah Marie Kirton, Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, UK

We hear it all the time: networking is so important for us. It’s true! Never underestimate the power of networking. However, for some of us, it’s not that easy. Do you find it daunting? Difficult to initiate? Or do you just need a motivational boost to start building new and existing relationships? Amidst the inhibitions to just get out there and network, it’s important to realise the true potential of networking and how it impacts career success. In this article, I have compiled a ‘Mini Journal’ of networking tips and advice, but more importantly, explained its importance.

What is networking?

Networking is an interaction that exchanges information and ideas, in order to develop productive and professional relationships. Networking is best, and easiest, at conferences and meetings, where there are a multitude of professionals in and related to your field of interest. But remember, networking is not just about speaking with key leaders in your field. It’s also just as important to talk and network with PhD students, postdocs and other early career researchers. If anything, forming new contacts with early career researchers is more beneficial, since you will grow together in your field and may regularly contact each other throughout. Plus, they are a direct contact to the group leaders who you may be interested in working with and therefore, a good way to understand how that lab or institute works and supports early career researchers.

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Why is networking important?

Put simply, networking with PhD students, postdocs and group leaders can benefit both your research and recognition, which, if performed correctly, will boost your career.

  • Research

Communicating with researchers and experts in your field can open up new questions and ideas for your research. This will enable you to view your research from a different point of view, both technically and theoretically. Collectively, this helps to shape and strengthen your research. This also forms the basis of collaborations, which generates a multidisciplinary approach to research and facilitates publications in high-impact journals.

  • Recognition

Networking is also an excellent platform to increase visibility within your research field, and visibility to prospective future employers. It also enables you to communicate with PhDs and postdocs you may later work with, who are equally key to your future.

How to network?

Try to break away from your comfort zone at conferences and meetings. It is so easy to stick to your lab team and supervisor, but remember, you have already formed professional relationships with them and see them every day! Challenge yourself. Be curious and open your mind.

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Beginners top tips

  • If networking is not your strongpoint, start by speaking to early career researchers in your field. Attend early career breakout meetings such as the postgrad, postdoc breakfasts and career sessions, and talk to the people around you, i.e. talk about their poster and research, or even their career. It’s amazing how quickly people let their guard down once you talk about or compliment their research.
  • Attend poster sessions. These are generally more informal and relaxed, helping you to ask your question and engage in conversation over research.
  • Add your e-mail address to your posters. This will help people to get in touch with you. Remember, you are not the only one networking.
  • Simple ways to interact with researchers at conferences can include striking a friendly conversation at a dinner or coffee queue or sitting next to someone at lunch. This is an easy way to build your confidence and get used to introducing yourself at conferences.
  • Alternatively, utilising a familiar point of reference helps to build relationships, i.e. mentioning a work colleague you both know.
  • If you’re not ready to ask a question at the end of oral presentations, approach the presenter after the session. Be confident, but think carefully about your question!

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Advanced top tips

  • If you aim to speak with team leaders in your field and don’t quite have the courage to walk over and introduce yourself, look out for them at the conference reception or dinner. An easy icebreaker is to smile, introduce yourself, and talk about your lab and research. Try to follow that up with an easy question about their research, or yours!
  • Be specific when you approach people. If you admire their work then demonstrate it, by saying something like: ‘I really enjoyed your recent paper in Neuron about sodium channels’.
  • If there is a particular person you would like to speak with, email them a few days before the conference and let them know you’d like to meet up. This cuts out any awkward introductions, and forces you to follow your plans to meet.
  • Alternatively, plan ahead prior to a conference or meeting. Read about their research and publications before approaching them with your questions. This will help you articulate questions specifically, clearly and with confidence.
  • Once you have developed a network, make a strong effort to maintain that link. Promptly reply to emails or make regular contact when possible. It is very hard to make connections, but very easy to lose them.

Exercise now, thank yourself later

by Glenn Wadley, Associate Professor, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University, Australia.

Endurance exercise and healthy hearts

A wealth of evidence shows that physical activity helps prevent heart disease and all causes of mortality (1) and has benefits for the heart at any age (2): aerobic exercise – often referred to as ‘cardio’ – and in particular endurance-training, is beneficial to the heart. But these effects – in adults – are only temporary and lost soon after training is stopped (3-5). Because of this, it has been assumed until now that the beneficial effects of exercise for the heart are also temporary for young and adolescent mammals, including humans.

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The athlete’s heart – when big is beautiful

Moderate levels of endurance exercise training improve the structure and function of the heart, and makes it grow larger, resulting in what is called athlete’s heart, or physiological cardiac hypertrophy (3-5). This larger heart is beneficial and quite distinct from the enlarged hearts observed in disease, which display reduced function, and increased scarring and molecular and structural differences, in addition to heart failure and increased mortality (6). In contrast, athlete’s heart can improve quality of life, since people with a physiologically healthy, bigger heart will pump more blood and thus can train harder at any given age (7). This effect is of particular benefit as adults get older.

The workhorse cells of the body – cardiomyocytes

 In the heart, specialised muscle cells do the heavy lifting: they are called cardiomyocytes, and are highly resistant to fatigue. The adult human heart contains several billion cardiomyocytes and their coordinated contraction produces around 100,000 heartbeats per day, every day.

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Cardiomyocytes up close.

Until recently, we thought that the number of cardiomyocytes in mammals’ hearts was fixed shortly after birth. Adult cardiomyocytes don’t get renewed or multiply much, so we thought that the heart grew larger in response to training because the existing cardiomyocytes grew larger, rather than because there were more of them.

However, our recent study has established that an increase in cell number also plays a considerable role in cardiac growth in response to just four weeks of moderate intensity exercise, if the training is conducted during juvenile life, which is 5-9 weeks of age for a rat. This training period would be equivalent to late childhood and puberty in humans. We also found that this effect of exercise on cell number diminishes with age and is lost by adulthood. Indeed, when the same exercise training program is conducted in adolescent rats (11-15 weeks of age, or around the time of late puberty and reproductive maturation in humans), there is a much smaller impact on cardiomyocytes multiplying. In adult rats, heart mass and cardiomyocyte size still increase following exercise training, but without any increase in cardiomyocyte number. Clearly, endurance exercise is beneficial for the heart at any age, but it appears that a window of time exists in the younger heart whereby exercise might be able to grow more cardiomyocytes.

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With regards to the benefits of juvenile exercise for the heart, perhaps the most compelling finding is that the increased heart mass and around 40% increase in cardiomyocyte number remain well into adulthood. What’s more, this increase in cell number is sustained despite the rats being couch potatoes for a prolonged period of time – the equivalent of 10 years in humans! Having more cardiomyocytes potentially makes the heart better equipped for the structural and functional challenges of adult life. For example, in the UK, the 915,000 survivors of heart attack (8) are left with a heart containing up to 25% fewer cardiomyocytes (9) that are not replaced, along with a large degree of scarring and fibrosis. Thus, having more cardiomyocytes saved up for a rainy day could be a handy reserve if you are unfortunate to suffer a cardiac event.

There are already plenty of good reasons to exercise regularly and we know exercise is beneficial for heart health at any stage of life. However, should these recent findings translate to humans they would provide a new reason to ensure there are sufficient opportunities for children to engage in regular physical activity in school curricula. Importantly, our research suggests that there may be long-term cardiac benefits of physical activity for all children, even if the children do not continue with regular exercise in adulthood. Unfortunately, we know the majority of children do not meet physical activity recommendations (10) and therefore their hearts may be missing out on the best start to life.

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