My name is Glen, and I’m here to introduce my new LIFE Apps blog, Heart of the Matter. Scientific research is almost never a linear path. Questions often lead to more questions. While answers are produced along the way, it is really more of a journey of discovery than a planned trip. And so I find it fitting that my path to a career in science was similarly disjointed, unplanned, but ultimately exciting.

Discovery

My family does not have a history in academics or science. I am actually the first person in my family to go to university. But I knew from a young age that a university degree was critical to the careers I was interested in. Well, most of them anyways. Professional baseball players don’t require a university degree.

In retrospect, there were a few moments of epiphany that shifted me down my career path. The first was a conversation I had while working in a restaurant when I was in high school. I had always loved two things in school: science and sports, but these interests seemed incompatible. That is until one of my co-workers told me about kinesiology: a discipline where you can study the science of athletes. I was immediately intrigued, but the pragmatist in me wondered what I could do with such a degree.

A few months later, just before a national rowing competition, I injured my knee skiing. My doctor referred me to physical therapy to try and avoid missing the event. I had my second epiphany then: the athletic and physical therapists at the clinic had gone to university to study kinesiology! The idea of working all day with athletes, applying science and medicine to improve performance, was like nirvana for a sports science geek.

An Introduction to Academics

After high school, I started my undergraduate degree in kinesiology. In the summer I worked in minor league baseball as an assistant trainer. But I wanted to explore other career options related to my interests, so I took up an internship at the Ontario Sports Centre. This is where the left turn into research happened. The Canadian Olympic team was in Toronto, and Dr. Andrew Pipe from the University of Ottawa needed volunteers to help with a study. For three days I sat in a conference room and investigated heart structure and function in athletes from different sports. My contributions were negligible, but the experience was priceless. I talked with the others about research, science, sports… everything I wanted in a career.

I contemplated research as a career for the next year or so. I spent my free time in the library researching research. What did professors research in areas I was interested in? What are the requirements to get into graduate school? Where can I get scholarships? Hesitant to rule anything out, I made a long list and contacted universities. Based on the information I got back, I quickly focused my attention on applying to a handful of schools.

A Leap of Faith

The journey to research was a long one, but the jump into a research career came very quickly. I submitted an application to the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Centre around the end of January. By the second week of February I was on a plane to Memphis for an interview. A few days after returning I accepted their offer to start in the doctoral program that fall. Over the course of less than three weeks I had gone from indecision about what I wanted to do with my life, to choosing a graduate school in a city I had spent less than 48 hours in. Oh, and I also met my future wife. All in all, a defining few weeks in my life.

Scientific Melting Pot

One of the great things about academic research is the diversity and exposure to different cultures that it offers. Scientific conferences are held throughout the world. The opportunity to visit and meet people from so many different backgrounds has been life-changing.

Chicago skyline reflected in the Millennium Park Bean.

But even your home base can expose you to new life experiences. Born and raised in southern Ontario, I spent four years in the southern United States during graduate school. This was a completely different world than that in which I grew up. I also spent several years in Chicago, a city 30x larger than my hometown, and far more diverse.

Perhaps the best example of diversity academia can offer was a party held by a fellow graduate student. Each person was to bring a food or drink from their own country. It was only once we had assembled that we realized that almost every person was from a different country: Russia, Scotland, Wales, France, Mexico, China, United States, Canada…the list went on.

Forging Connections

The diversity of people in research has led to a diversity of research. I am often classified as a ‘molecular cardiologist’. This just means that my research team studies how the heart functions at the level of individual molecules. We use our understanding of how the heart malfunctions in disease to create treatments that slow or stop the problem. Alone we can cover a lot of ground, but through collaborations the impact increases exponentially.

Among the topics my lab is interested in is why women and men have different risks for cardiovascular disease, and why the same condition produces very different outcomes in the sexes. A connection I made in my days as a graduate student led to a partnership between labs that explores these issues. A collaboration that links our lab in Canada with others in the United States and Israel led to the creation of a novel treatment for heart attacks that we are testing now. Although my journey to academic research has ended, the winding path continues as my research team explores the scientific issues that remain unresolved.

The Path Forward

What can you expect from my blogs? The short answer is ‘who knows?’.  Current issues like sex and aging will likely appear. But so too will old ones like the re-emergence of calcium sensitizers to treat heart failure. You can expect that the topics will be current on the science, and that the content will be supported with peer reviewed research studies. But don’t be concerned: the postings won’t be full of jargon and technical terms. The idea is to turn cutting-edge research papers into articles that are accessible and of interest to a wide audience.

 

Featured image: Investigating the heart.


Glen Pyle

Bringing you science and medical stories from the world of cardiology.

I am a professor of molecular cardiology, with an interest in heart failure mechanisms, novel treatments and hormonal regulation of the heart. I work at the Centre for Cardiovascular Investigations (CCVI) at the University of Guelph.

LifeOmic is the software company that leverages the cloud, machine learning and mobile devices to offer disruptive solutions to healthcare providers, researchers, health IT companies and patients.

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