“Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting.” —Vera Rubin
I love this quote from an amazing woman the world unfortunately lost in 2016. Science is competitive, it can be aggressive and it can definitely be demanding. That’s what makes it so rewarding. When you’re working on a problem, stuck on a specific element in that problem, science can be incredibly frustrating. But when you find a solution to the issue, when you come up with a creative approach, science can be uplifting. Other scientists can be inspiring, but so can their work. When you find a paper that is well-written and communicates its findings clearly, it can rejuvenate your own work.
But how do you decide what is going to be your “thing”? How do you figure out your research area? How do you whittle it down to the relatively niche area required for a PhD and beyond? There was a post the other day asking the readers what their “aha” moment was when it came to picking their research topic. I realized that I didn’t specifically have one.
I first discovered sports science was a viable option to study at university when I was 14. Our phys-ed teacher arranged a trip to visit the sports science facilities at a university about an hour away. I was awed, walking around all the physiology testing rooms, the sporting facilities, and was literally breathless when I was made to do a Wingate test! But it was visiting the biomechanics lab, where a harness was suspended from the ceiling harness and a tripping mechanism embedded in the floor, that I realized what I was interested in.
Over the three years of undergrad, my interests remained in biomechanics, but became more refined towards understanding injuries. My research project at the culmination of my time there ended up being an epidemiological study on injury risk factors in university sports. It involved 8 weeks of daily questionnaires from approximately 120 students and athletes based at the university. The data analysis still gives me nightmares! I have a lot of respect for those of you in statistically-heavy, questionnaire-focused fields after that experience!
Initially, I thought my next steps after graduating would be to study physiotherapy. Life happened, and I came to the realization that I wanted to do the science that drives the techniques used. I applied for a masters in Sports Biomechanics, and started in September 2015. Around January 2015, I figured out my dream career. To get there, I’d have to do a PhD. I started researching advisors and labs (see post here), and fine-tuned my interests while starting the masters. The university had recently opened a sports medicine center and brought in new faculty members with diverse research backgrounds. Learning from them and the other established faculty in the department, learning a broad history of key papers, literature and theories in biomechanics and how they relate to performance and injury, I started getting excited about the application of biomechanics in orthopedics.
Shortly after arriving at Penn State, my advisor and I sat down to discuss research ideas. The lab I work in focuses on joint mechanics and function – a lot of work looks at joint structure, moment arms, why our joints work the way they do. I knew that my research would fit somewhere into this theme, and I’d just finished a project looking at a specific injury mechanism for ankle sprains for my masters.
I was leaning towards something to do with ankle joint structure when my advisor brings up an idea he’s been wanting to look at for a while. We developed the idea further before I started work on the first project. Essentially, the theme of my PhD is how total ankle replacements affect joint mechanics, including changing Achilles tendon moment arm. The hope is, by changing the leverage of the Achilles tendon through a joint replacement, it will shed light onto how changing the moment arm at the ankle affects joint function.
So at the end of my first semester, I am about a third of the way through my first project – a methods paper. Conference abstract/submission season is well and truly upon us, and I’m working on three submissions. One is a conference in Europe, which my masters advisor suggested I apply to. That conference submission is a summary of my MSc thesis work. There is also another conference in September next year which might also be an option if the Europe submission gets rejected. The other abstract I’m working on has a deadline in March, but is based off the work I’ve been doing this first semester of my PhD. It’s a good kick up the backside to be productive so I have something to write about and present!
I’ll write more posts about the conference process as things happen, but for now, I have to focus on semester 2. My goals for this next semester are to get all the code written for this first project, with just data about me. I’d like to get this done by March, when that abstract is due, and then work on getting more data and writing up a paper later in the year. I also have my qualifying exams in April/May time which will take up some of my time this semester. I still have classes and TA duties, but I my main goal this semester is to get my research really flying.