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Dr. Nate Jenkins works with graduate research assistants

Investing in a Healthier Future

Monday, October 15, 2018

Significant progress in health research is being made within the College of Education, Health and Aviation, with Dr. Nate Jenkins, assistant professor in health and human performance, leading a team of graduate students on research projects with very practical implications.

“I believe in the research,” Jenkins said. “It could have a substantial public health impact; I really do believe that. If you look at the state of Oklahoma, when it comes to health we are pretty much dead last in almost everything. Whether it’s obesity rates, diabetes rates or adverse childhood experiences, we are 50 out of 50, or close to it. There is a significant chance to have an impact on people in the state by studying the effects of these issues and ways to circumvent them. It goes back to our mission as a land-grant institution.”

At age 28 and still early in his career, Jenkins is nationally recognized for his contributions to the field of exercise science. To date, he has published more than 65 manuscripts, 22 as the lead author; secured more than a quarter-million dollars in external funding for research; and in July, he was named the Terry J. Housh Outstanding Young Investigator of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). 

Research assistant working at a computer

“Dr. Jenkins is an impressive young scientist with a strong research record and even stronger character,” said Doug Smith, head of the School of Kinesiology, Applied Health and Recreation. “He is a great representative of OSU, and we are proud to have him here.”

Jenkins said priority and philosophy fuel his productivity. At his core, he is committed to developing the next generation of researchers through intentional mentorship.

“At the end of the day, my students are my main priority,” Jenkins explained. “I have high expectations for them, which means I must have high expectations of myself.”

With the help of a grant from the NSCA, Jenkins and his team are studying genetic polymorphisms and the effects of caffeine on neuromuscular function. Extensive testing demonstrates that some people respond favorably to caffeine, while others experience detrimental effects or no effect at all. Genetic predisposition may play a role in these responses.

“If successful, the research could spur formal recommendations for athletes on whether consuming caffeine is beneficial for them as an individual,” Jenkins explained.

Jenkins’ team is also looking at the effects of resistance training on post-prandial glucose and lipid responses — how someone clears sugars and fatty acids from the circulatory system after they eat. The post-meal assessment is used to detect things like pre-diabetes or cardiovascular disease risk.

“The goal is to understand how exercise modifies the post-meal response so that we can use it to help with glucose and lipid control and, ultimately, decrease the long-term risk for cardiovascular disease or diabetes,” Jenkins said.

Exercise also has powerful effects on inflammation, acting as an anti-inflammatory stimulus. Jenkins’ research looks at how exercise can be used to decrease systemic inflammation in conditions like aging and cardiovascular or metabolic disease as well as inflammation caused by adverse childhood experiences. 

The research is conducted on OSU’s Stillwater campus in the Applied Neuromuscular Physiology Laboratory using state-of-the-art technology and volunteer study participants.

To assess vascular health, Jenkins’ team uses a technique called flow mediated dilation.

“We use a blood pressure cuff in conjunction with a diagnostic ultrasound,” Jenkins said. “We image the artery, then block blood flow for about five minutes. We have some highly specialized software that will track the vessel wall and measure vessel diameter. We also measure blood flow velocity. The better or the more you react, the healthier your vascular system. We can use that as a risk indicator for cardiovascular disease or other adverse cardiovascular events.”

Jenkins’ interest in these areas is a personal one. He grew up overweight, but he was also an athlete.  After being recruited to play baseball in college, Jenkins began taking exercise and nutrition seriously. It became his passion, both personally and professionally.

As a faculty member, he gets to share that passion with his students.

Dr. Nate Jenkins with research assistants and subject

“My primary goal is to train my doctoral students so they are in the position I was two years ago, graduating with their choice of some of the best jobs out there,” Jenkins emphasized.

Given the success graduate students are experiencing under his guidance, it seems Jenkins is on the right track.

In June, Ryan Colquhoun, a doctoral student in health and human performance, received an $11,000 grant as the principal investigator to fund a neuromuscular research project exploring what causes muscle damage. 

“We are looking at muscle actions and whether the shortening or lengthening of the muscle causes damage,” Colquhoun said. “Does lowering weight cause more damage than lifting weight and if so, why?”

Pat Tomko, who just completed his first year in the doctoral program, is also a part of the research team and savoring every moment.

“I’m kind of like a sponge, soaking up all that I can from Dr. Jenkins and Ryan,” Tomko said. “Learning from others is so important and it’s one of the reasons I chose to come to OSU. I knew I’d be comfortable asking questions here and be supported by outstanding faculty.” 

Colquhoun and Tomko recognize the distinctive learning experience OSU provides, specifically as it relates to Jenkins’ hands-on, mentorship approach.

“You’re surrounded by people who want to invest in you,” Colquhoun said. “The focus is on producing quality people and receiving a quality education. That makes me want to return the investment and give it my all.”

As graduate assistants, Colquhoun and  Tomko work in the lab, conduct research and teach applied exercise science undergraduate courses, all while pursuing their doctorates in health and human performance. Both hope to follow in Jenkins’ footsteps and one day teach and mentor students of their own.

“My experience has truly set me up for success,” said Colquhoun. “I’m grateful to be a part of a program that has actively trained and empowered me to make an impact on the world through research.”

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