Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

Archive for the month “January, 2013”

The accidental scientist

It was to be a marriage of convenience, this encounter, lasting for three years, no more. And then, I would most certainly move on. That was the plan. Although I had a notion of what I wished to gain by the end of this experience, the time in between remained a mystery. I was young, naive, and brimming with idealism, yet I felt a certain apprehension about this new adventure. It had all happened so fast, and now here I was about to uproot myself and move to Montreal like a bride to New France, not knowing what kind of life I was about to begin.
It had only been two years since I graduated from university. I should’ve been happy. I had a high-paying job, a comfortable lifestyle, and no debt. Yet, I wasn’t. I remember thinking, is this it? Is this what I studied four years for? It wasn’t enough; I needed more. And so, here I was, ready to trade in the familiar and the secure for uncertainty and a drastic change in lifestyle. I was going back to school.
Until this point, I had not imagined myself doing research. Sure, I was critical, analytical, rational, curious, and creative, but somehow I never connected these dots to research. Maybe it was that ill-fated grade 12 biology lab experiment when I sliced a poor, unsuspecting worm in sagittal section instead of making a gentle, superficial incision to expose the structures beneath the peritoneum. My lab partners, horrified by my lack of surgical precision, demoted me to note-taker for all subsequent dissections.
During my undergraduate years, lab work was an integral component of my health professional program. Yet, despite doing well, I remained largely unenamored with scientific experimentation – at least fundamental or laboratory-based research.
My MSc program at McGill would change all that.
Before coming to McGill, my notion of ‘scientist’ was a largely stereotypical one, in which a white lab coat-clad social misfit toiled away in his/her lonely lab for years on end conducting highly esoteric experiments with no real-world applicability. While that character sketch is not necessarily a fiction, it fails to recognize all the other types of non-laboratory scientific research being conducted.
At McGill, I was exposed to ‘clinical research’, in which people are recruited to participate in an experiment in order to answer a specific scientific question. My experiment was a randomized controlled trial of patients with untreated high cholesterol. We sought to answer whether prescribing a cholesterol-lowering medication affected patients’ concurrent efforts to adopt a healthy lifestyle. It was a formative experience, requiring me to play many diverse roles, including scientist, clinician, teacher, counselor, and entrepreneur. I had no idea at the time just how much I would love research and its many creative opportunities.
That was 12 years ago. Scientific research, rather than being a stepping stone, has instead evolved to become a core element of my professional career, complementing my clinical work and continually inspiring me to ask why.


Does running regularly give one license to eat?

Does running regularly give one license to eat?

I don’t know the definitive answer to this question, but I suspect the answer is probably no. Even for those among us who have a healthy body mass index (BMI) and who have achieved a high level of cardiorespiratory fitness.

I used to run with a fairly hard-core, fit group of runners (many of whom would win races or finish near the top in their age category) until I got injured; I still run regularly, but I now also participate in other sports for cross-training to mitigate the risk of further injury. Anyway, when I used to run with this group of talented runners, it was customary to hit the local pub twice a week following a run for beer, a burger & fries or big plate of pasta. Although I didn’t personally partake in this food/beverage post-work-out feasting ritual, I did (and still do) regularly indulge in a fair amount of dark chocolate.

With all this unchecked eating/drinking among runners/athletes I knew, I often found myself wondering whether the running really undid these regular dietary splurges. Despite the amount and type of food consumed, the runners didn’t seem to gain weight (that I could see), but was there anything else adverse happening inside their bodies, metabolically? I don’t know, but it’s a question I’d love to know the answer to.

Many years ago, as part of a Master’s in Nutrition, I did a study of people with untreated high cholesterol to see if prescribing a cholesterol-lowering medication (in this case, a statin drug) affected whether people adopted the concurrently recommended ‘usual’ lifestyle advice given for eating healthy and exercising regularly. My hypothesis (or hunch) was that if people were given a pill, which they believed would control their cholesterol, they wouldn’t see the need to eat healthy or exercise regularly. My study was small (53 people), single-blind (participants didn’t know whether they were receiving a statin or placebo, but the investigators did), and only conducted at one site, so the findings have important limitations. Nonetheless, we did not find any appreciable differences between groups in any of the parameters we investigated, including weight, food intake, or exercise after 12 weeks, suggesting that maybe the presence of a pill didn’t affect behavior. It’s only one study, though, and a small one at that. Had I gone on to do a PhD, I would’ve liked to probe this question further in a larger, longer, more detailed study, perhaps in another group of patients, where we would also look at hormone levels and other endpoints.

Regardless, I have now been sensitized to my own dietary indiscretions after reading that the amount of exercise I do likely doesn’t completely vanquish all those chocolate (and other indiscriminate) calories I consume like I hoped it would. (See I’ll still exercise regularly, because I love it, but I won’t count on it for undoing the bad dietary choices I make.

Sartorial-savvy snowman

Sartorial-savvy snowman

One morning, just before the Christmas holidays, while setting off for work, I noticed this dapper little snowman in my neighbor’s front yard. His scarf, so bright and cheerful, was doubtless knit by a doting grandmum. The early-ish morning sunlight peeking through the clouds provided the perfect lighting for his big close-up.

British-inspired snowman with bowler hat

British-inspired snowman with bowler hat

I spotted this sharply-attired snowman in his bowler-like hat a few days ago during my morning trudge to work through the snowy, lakeside park. Clearly, he had been outfitted by a local haberdasher of some repute, who understood the importance of looking one’s best for the grand opening of the Rideau Canal Skateway season and the thousands of skaters who are expected to take to the ice behind this snowy yeoman.

Carols by smartphone LED light

Carols by smartphone LED light

I recently attended a traditional nine lessons & carols (for background on this service, see church service. However, not known for my punctuality, the church was packed when I arrived and there were no bulletins/programs left. I had no choice but to pull out my Blackberry in the dimly lit church and try to stealthily download a program from the church’s website. All the while, I could sense the dozens of disapproving looks and murmurs behind me from people, who doubtless assumed I was simply indulging a serious crackberry addiction in their sacred place of worship.

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