Going for the Au

By Kristina Meek
July 27, 2012

The symbol for “gold” on the periodic table. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

What makes someone a great athlete? As the 2012 Summer Olympics open, that’s a question that people worldwide might be pondering. Here at Sanford-Burnham it led us to wonder, do exceptional minds and exceptional bodies tend to co-exist? Perhaps competing in sports informs scientific pursuits, and vice-versa. For example, Sally Ride—who, sadly, the world lost this week—was a nationally ranked tennis player before she became a physicist and astronaut.

We turned to our own scientists to find out what’s in the intersection between science and sports. “San Diego County is filled with scientist-athletes,” one of them told us. Below, meet just a few.

Christine Gould, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Sanford-Burnham’s NCI-Designated Cancer Center, recently qualified for the Half Ironman World Championship. She credits the same personality traits that drove her to achieve in academia with her success as an athlete. “Triathletes in particular are extremely ‘Type A’,” she says. “These people are usually very motivated and successful in their careers. They want to be the best at what they do in their careers as well as wanting to compete well.”

Christine goes on to say that, while triathletes come from all walks of life, the lifestyle aligns well with the traits found among scientists. “With the type of work that you do [as a scientist], you need a lot of independence and motivation and the ability to overcome obstacles.”

Climbing with curiosity

Rachel Zarndt Ellison is a graduate student working in the lab of Rolf Bodmer, Ph.D. This September she will climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, where she will observe tourists’ reactions to extreme altitude. She started climbing mountains as an undergraduate. On her first climb, she fell behind her group, strongly affected by the altitude. Her scientific curiosity kicked in. “When I got back down I kept thinking, ‘What happened up there?’ I stayed up really late at night on PubMed trying to figure it out,” Rachel says, referring to a database of scientific publications maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

As she continued her education, she took that experience with her. “I realized that very few people in the climbing or scientific communities understand how the human body acclimatizes to high altitude. Questions from mountaineering led directly to my current Ph.D. work.” Rachel is studying how Drosophila (fruit fly) hearts respond to reduced oxygen levels, a condition known as hypoxia. She’s also interested in cross-species adaptations to living permanently at high altitude.

Cycling for the mind

For Ryon Graf, a Sanford-Burnham graduate student and avid cyclist who won the 2011 amateur Southern California Time Trial Championship, riding feeds the scientific mind, so to speak. He says, “Cycling, and sports in general, provides a critical cornerstone of health, fitness, and perspective that I see necessary for the mental clarity required for research.”

He goes on to say, “I have had some of my best ideas while on the bike. It provides a very good filter for mental noise and offers a certain amount of time where I’m unreachable via email! Cruising along the coast in the early mornings before work, away from the bustle of the lab, is a little bit of moving meditation for me.”

Ryon studies cancer, specifically metastasis and resistance to apoptosis (cell death). He often meets other researchers through cycling. “Cycling provides a common ground and a slightly less formal format for discussions with diverse minds,” he says.

Our own CEO, John C. Reed, M.D., Ph.D., is an Ironman triathlete himself. He has often expressed the pride he takes in the successes of the Sanford-Burnham community, both in the lab and out. “I know that, for me, competing athletically is part of who I am as a scientist. I’m so pleased to see young, up-and-coming scientists and students achieving so much, whether it’s at the lab bench, on a bicycle, or wherever they find their inspiration.”

Know any great scientist-athletes? Tell us about them in the comments below!

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Kristina Meek

Kristina was an SBP Communications staff member.


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