My Journey Out From Under the Stairs


Like Harry Potter, I spent a lot of time under the stairs as a kid. But unlike Harry, I did so willingly. It was there my parents allowed me to locate my "laboratory", a miscellaneous collection of chemistry sets, a microscope, and some old beakers and test tubes from an uncle. On most days after school, I would retire to my laboratory under the stairs to examine water samples from the nearby pond under the microscope, or apply an electrical current to some poor little frog. That doesn't mean I was spending all my time inside; far from it. Before school I was training for and playing sports, including football and track and field.

Early inspiration for 'Scientists of Sport'

My science and my sports interests lived independently until one fateful day at age 15 when I was reading Jim Fixx's Second Book of Running , published in 1980 by the late James F. Fixx. I came to a chapter called "The Scientists of Sport" which described some research done by David Costill and others on the limiting factors in running performance. I was enthralled already only after having read the title. By the time I had finished the chapter, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

At age 17, I started studying for a bachelor's degree at the University of Arkansas, entering one of the first wave of university "exercise science" programs that sprouted up all over the United States in the late 1970s and early '80s. Besides a solid dose of courses like English, literature, American history, and communication skills, the curriculum included general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, calculus, anatomy (complete with stinky cat cadaver), human physiology, general psychology, and physiological psychology. After 2 years of a program that looked a lot like premedical school, I progressed to the core exercise science courses such as exercise physiology, biomechanics, applied human anatomy, and research methods in physical education.

Looking back, this basic training in the natural sciences also laid a solid foundation for the graduate studies I was to undertake, and I would encourage undergraduates interested in sports science to build such knowledge. Sports science is a very multidisciplinary discipline, and you will only be as good as your foundation in the underlying core sciences. Plus, in your future academic life, you never know when you may need to teach something unexpected! Years after my undergraduate studies, I was able to get my first teaching position in Norway in part by agreeing to teach undergraduate biomechanics (while I consider myself as an exercise physiologist). I managed this largely on the basis of my undergraduate background in physics and my ongoing interest in human performance. But I'm jumping ahead of myself here.

I recall that, by my senior year as an undergraduate, my ultimate career goal was to "direct the Olympic Training Center" in Colorado Springs, which I assumed was the Mecca for the science of sports training. But one day, as I was wandering by the labs, I saw a professor bent over a rat in a situation that looked suspiciously like a surgery. He let me sit in and watch as he was inducing a heart attack in anesthetized and ventilated rats. I passed by the same lab often after that and followed the progress of the rats as they were exercised daily on a treadmill after recovery in what was essentially an animal model of a cardiac rehabilitation intervention. A whole different world of physiological investigation opened up to me, and I was fascinated.

So, as part of the master's program I then took on, I got a research assistantship from Charles Riggs (the professor who let me sit in on his operation) and became the "rat man", feeding, watering, cleaning, and often training rats every morning. My project was to compare the impact of different training intensities on cardiac performance in treadmill-trained rats.

During my 2-year master's studies, I was in the sometimes frustrating but ultimately fortunate situation of being allowed to work very independently. I learned chemical analytic methods along with animal surgery methods, such as how to cannulate a carotid artery (insert a tube into a pulsing artery the diameter of a pencil lead without "bleeding out" the lab rat you have invested months training). Along the way I got my first research article published, and this little taste of success was enough to get me hooked on research.

I then moved to the Kinesiology-Exercise Biochemistry program at the University of Texas, Austin, for my doctoral studies, which I started in 1989 and completed in 1995. My project was in creating rat models for the medically relevant situations of heart attacks and ischemia-reperfusion injury, and involved learning how to perform isolated working-heart procedures, which never ceased to fascinate me.

Reaching a crossroad

Nearing the end of my doctoral studies, I looked up from my lab bench and realized that I had ventured very far from my first love, the science of sport. In the course of 10 years I went from going towards working in human performance at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, to doing some medically oriented basic research. Even though I had learned a great deal about the science of exercise, I was not applying that knowledge in the way I had envisioned. Still, I had kept involved in sports during my PhD studies, competing in rowing (and training every morning at 5:30 a.m.), and spending my lunches talking to guys in the other labs where endurance athletes like Lance Armstrong were being tested. As I contemplated "the next step" after my PhD, I asked myself, "Should I continue down a research path that will lead me farther away from the 'sport' part of sport science? Or should I return to human performance?"

As fate would have it, my decision was dramatically influenced in an unforeseen way. While attending the American College of Sports Medicine national conference, I met a Norwegian woman, whom I ultimately married. I decided to move to Norway and my "postdoc" as it were was an intensive dive into a new culture, new language, and different academic traditions. I joined a program at Agder University (where my wife was a member of the faculty), in Kristiansand where sports teacher education was the emphasis and sports science research was limited to human models of investigation.

My luck didn't stop there, as the program was growing and opportunities opened up, allowing me to become associate professor in sport science as well as holding a research position at the Soerlandet Regional Hospital. My own interest in endurance performance has led me towards investigating performance development, both for the training of athletes of Olympic level and the rehabilitation of patients. I feel that the breadth of my research experience has put me in a unique position to help develop such cooperative projects between the sport science faculty and the medicine and rehabilitation centers.

Consequently, I would advise sports science students not to narrow their focus too early. Don't get trapped into studying one model of exercise, like humans running on a treadmill. Jump at every opportunity to challenge your comfort zone and learn something new. Look for collaborative possibilities involving specialists from medicine, computer science, engineering, and other fields. I am inspired by scientists like Hans Hoppeler at the University of Bern in Switzerland, who has studied everything from bees to humans in his efforts to understand how muscle adapts to different types of exercise. To continue developing, sports science needs people who can integrate information from different disciplines and appreciate the merits of different research approaches.

Current exercise science students who wish to make a mark in research face an important decision regarding what direction they wish to go. One path is to pursue molecular biology and look into the links between exercise and changes in gene expression. Another path is to integrate exercise physiology and biomechanics with rapid technological advances that are pushing us towards the era of the fully instrumented athlete. As instrumentation is being transferred out of the laboratory and into the sports arena, real-time second-by-second physiological and biomechanical analysis will provide new insights in human performance.

But whatever route you choose you will face a similar challenge. As Hoppeler commented during a symposium, the human brain is not capable of analyzing simultaneously information from various sources. Unraveling the complexities of cell responses to different combinations of exercise stimuli, or integrating the multiple factors involved in optimizing human performance at the whole body level, will require new tools that move us away from traditional "linear thinking" and towards "multidimensional networking", for lack of a better term.

The final piece of advice I would give students in sports science is to invest time and energy in learning to speak and write well. Communication skills are always an asset. History is full of examples where two scientists independently made the same important discoveries, yet only one is remembered. (Bill Bryson's brilliant book A Short History of Nearly Everything should be required reading.) The scientist we remember was invariably the one who could explain what he/she found and why it mattered in a clear manner.

Good luck in this exciting field!

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers