Researcher in the Spotlight December 2015


Dr Peter Francis, BSc, BSc, PhD, is an expert in health and performance physiology, physical activity across the lifespan, and chronic lower limb injury.

What is your research about?

My research broadly focuses on muscle function. This includes the measurement of age-related change in muscle quality, injury related change in muscle function and response to therapeutic intervention.

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?

I wanted to be an exercise scientist from age 16. I was running a high volume of miles at the time and was fascinated by changes in fitness and injury incidence. After completing a BSc Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Limerick in 2009, I applied for a physiology internship at the Australian Institute of Sport and for a PhD bursary. Unfortunately, I could acquire either at the time. Subsequently, I travelled to the Middle East (Qatar) and taught English for a year. During this time, I acquired the Roadbridge Medical Research Scholarship to support my PhD entitled ‘Age-related change in muscle quality’ at the University of Limerick. I completed my second BSc in Physical Therapy on a part-time basis (weekends) over a period of 4 years. In 2013, I took up a lecturing role in sport and health science at the University of St. Mark and John. In 2014, I was appointed senior lecturer in rehabilitation and health science at Leeds Beckett University where I am based at present.

Why is your work important?

The measurement of age-related change in muscle function is important as it is contributing to a body of knowledge attempting to develop diagnostic criteria for sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is to muscle what osteoporosis is to bone, yet diagnostic criteria for muscle lags far behind the well-established criteria for the assessment of bone health. Our work is also starting to move into assessing the muscular health of retired rugby players due to IRB (International Rugby Board) concerns about player health after what is becoming an increasing traumatic and injurious career since professionalism arrived in the early 2000’s.

Our work in relation to muscle injury focuses on footballers and endurance athletes. Muscle injury is the most prevalent injury in football, and contributes to the greatest amount of time missed from training and matches. Furthermore, muscle re-injury leads to significantly greater muscle damage than the initial injury. Deficits in muscle function can remain even when MRI imaging appears clear which suggests imaging alone cannot govern return to play criteria. Our work aims to chart muscle function pre, during and post injury.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

Sometimes I wonder. So much time and effort is required to contribute such a small piece of information to the existing knowledge base. The time it takes to trickle down to applied practice is a real issue for scientists. Sometimes when I conduct applied work such as improving a group’s fitness or helping an athlete return to sport I wonder where I make greater difference. I think the immediate impact of applied science is very satisfying but I hope that the combined efforts of all research scientists means our work does make a global difference even if progress is slow.

What does a typical day involve?

A typical day involves lecturing BSc or MSc students studying Sport & Exercise Therapy, Physiotherapy or Sport and Exercise Medicine. I normally will have some MSc or PhD student meetings to attend to as well as trying to find time for my own writing. I try to keep involved in some applied practice over the course of the year so as not to lose my skills. I am often involved in exercise science/physical therapy related roles for the Athletics Association of Ireland. Sometimes this involves coach education or athlete support on training camps or at major championships.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

I am not sure where my hobby ends and my job begins, both focus on some form of sport or exercise. My favourite aspect is without doubt the variety! I am thinker who gets bored easily, the variety in my job combined with the intellectual challenge means I never get bored, there is always another goal to achieve or something new to learn. I particularly enjoy working with people and like to help students think independently.

What do enjoy the least?

Administration and related tasks that have little to do with sport or exercise and often are unnecessary.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I was the manager for the Irish team at the European Junior Athletics championships in Sweden, July 2015.

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?

Follow your interests not what society or your academic peers expect of you. Stay true to yourself and your values, do not feel the need to compete with others trying to climb the greasy pole, they do not have a real passion for the area. If you do try and compete your work will become meaningless and you will not enjoy it. Following your interests with passion will take care of your progression. Remember quality is important not quantity. Complete all of your tasks well: be prepared for teaching as well as research, listen to interested undergraduates the same as you do colleagues, help other colleagues who are less confident. Be a person first and academic second. Have a successful mentor who exhibits these traits.

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