Researcher in the Spotlight January 2016


Dr Timothy West is Chief Technician and Laboratory Manager at the Royal Veterinary college and his research focuses on skinned muscle fibre mechanics and energetics.

What is your research about?

The mechanics and energetics of vertebrate striated muscles.

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

I didn’t always know that I wanted to work specifically on muscle.  I did know, however, that I wanted to work on animal (fish) energetics. I was led to muscle mechanics along a fairly logical path.  My MSc at Dalhousie University was on effects of sub-lethal heavy metals and acidity on fish swimming performance. It was a fun time, as I had free rein to design the study and to construct a swim-tunnel respirometer. This work led to my PhD at the University of British Columbia on in vivo glucose utilisation during sustained and exhaustive swimming in fishes. Again, this was an exceptionally fun and productive period with a great mentor, Peter Hochachka. Peter’s team was heavily oriented towards understanding the physiology of ‘making muscle slow (hypo-metabolism) and making muscle go (peak performance)’; it was a fascinating research environment. Post-doctoral work at Cambridge and Imperial College London focused on cellular and molecular studies of (i) anoxia tolerance mechanisms in frog muscle and (ii) crossbridge turnover during contraction in isolated intact and skinned muscle fibres. These days, most of my research meshes with the interests of Profs Alan Wilson and Nancy Curtin in the Structure & Motion Lab (SML) at the Royal Veterinary College – we are comparing muscle force, velocity, power and fibre-types in skinned and intact muscle preparations, partly with the aim of verifying that skinned fibres from biopsies of wild animals are a robust surrogate for intact and in vivo muscle power. 

Why is your work important?

A key challenge is to integrate muscle mechanics studies with whole animal kinematics and behaviour in order to reveal the physiological limits and environmental constraints on the locomotion of animals living in diverse, and changing, ecosystems.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

Yes, especially since we work on endangered species that live in threatened habitats. Investigating the mechanisms and adaptive capacity of muscle power in animals, especially when combined with observations of locomotor behaviour of the same animals in the wild, will advance our understanding of factors that underpin the diversity of animal performance, and can help to address how environmental change might impact on aspects of migration and conservation of animals in the wild.

What does a typical day involve?

Up at 0530 to make it to the lab by 0730.   I have an early ‘emails period’, as I call it, which involves an essential coffee and, if I’m organised, a seat in the café overlooking the central lawn of the RVC Hawkshead campus.  From this point, not much can be called ‘typical’, as my days presently can involve everything from co-ordinating with the team constructing the new SML lab building, to training new lab-personnel, to report writing, to data analysis and interpretation for MS’s, to commentary on new SML grant submissions, to some essential bench time (just as essential and satisfying as the morning coffee!!) chiefly with skinned muscle preparations from a range of SML projects.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

Being at the bench, data analysis/interpretation, training/mentoring, and all the discussion and banter that goes with MS and grants preparation.

What do enjoy the least?

Admin and paperwork.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

The bosses might call be a BOGOF: As well as being a muscle physiologist, I’m SML lab manager. Although it isn’t essential to have or to hang on to a research background to be a good lab manager, it does have the useful extra dimension of adding to the group’s strengths and critical mass.  I’m fortunate that my expertise aligns well with the research aims and goals of the SML team that I support; it means that I can remain fully involved with many aspects of the lab’s research output.

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

To find out whether you are passionate about research you need to jump in with both feet. Lots of experiments will ‘fail’, but there will always be something learned; e.g., knowing when/how to change direction in a study can be almost as valuable as the eureka-experiment. It helps greatly, I believe, to find a mentor who has a team-approach and who, at the same time, encourages independent exploration.

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