Look up from this computer, and wriggle your toes. Roll your shoulders back. Do a couple jumping jacks if you’re feeling motivated. Everything we do in our lives, from getting out of bed in the morning to typing out an email to running stadiums, revolves around human movement. Dig a little deeper, and you see that these movements rely on a complex interaction between your nervous system and muscle. Your brain tells your neurons to send a chemical signal down to your muscle, which then undergoes a mechanical contraction.
But let’s look even deeper than that. Let’s look down into the molecular world: at the DNA sequences and the proteins that make literally every single thing we do possible. This is what we study in Beth Barton’s Molecular Physiology of Muscle Lab, on the ground floor of the Florida Gym. If you step inside the lab, it will not strike you as a particularly remarkable place of groundbreaking research. Yes, there are some large machines buzzing intriguingly and cabinets filled with different types of chemicals, but it’s when you actually begin to understand the work being done within these rooms that you will be amazed.
I hope to bring you on that journey with me. After graduating with a B.S. in Applied Physiology and Kinesiology, I decided to pursue a master’s degree to continue to understand these remarkable processes that shape who we become. Like many of you, throughout my undergraduate career at UF, I had very little interest in research. I didn’t even know there were labs in the Florida Gym until my junior year! I thought there were two, entirely unrelated worlds: the clinical and the research world. But I’ve come to understand how interconnected the two are, and how much they rely on each other. For clinicians wouldn’t be able to prescribe the right drugs and therapies without the researchers, who uncover exactly how the molecular processes in our bodies work. And researchers would lose sight of what their science was really being used for without seeing the patients their work comes to affect.
I want you to understand research, its pitfalls and wonders, the days that make you want to cry and the days where you are so proud of what you’ve done, because you’ve discovered something no one else in history has ever known before. Come with me, and understand the first steps in drug development. Learn how we understand the mechanisms hidden in the world's deep within our cells, the ones that work every minute of every day to keep our bodies functioning. It is a remarkable universe we have within our very tissues, and I want you to learn about it with me
Many do not realize that the College of Health and Human Performance has facilities beyond the walls of the Florida Gym. I stumbled upon one of them while on a bike ride with my roommate during my sophomore year, and it turned out to be one of the most influential places of my life. We were biking along Williston Road, weaving in and out of neighborhoods, and came across a sign for “Oak Hammock.” Thinking it was another apartment complex, we biked through the front path, only to discover that we couldn’t get through the gated entrance.
The name Oak Hammock escaped my mind for several months afterward, until my advisor suggested I look at doing a practicum (essentially a mini-internship) at the fitness center there, which HHP held a contract to operate. What exactly was Oak Hammock, I asked? My advisor told me it was a retirement community affiliated with the university. It is, in fact, a continuing-care retirement community, more commonly known as a CCRC, in which the residents have access to everything they could possible need from healthcare to entertainment, including on-site physicians, a bar, and a fitness center.
I am telling you this now, three and a half years later, having completed a practicum there and continued on as a fitness supervisor and then graduate assistant. In that time, I have gained the truest friends, learned about careers, how to plan for retirement, and what dating was like in the 1940s and 50s. I have learned more about loss than I ever thought I would by the age of 23. In return for imparting their wisdom, I and the other fitness supervisors, all students from HHP, have the opportunity to teach that generation about the perks of exercise and why it is needed to make this stage of their life as enjoyable as possible.
At Oak Hammock, I have been blessed with the opportunities to teach the residents about anatomy, about the basics of muscle physiology, and why stretching is important. I have become experienced in taking blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen saturation, and reading the warning signs that are telling of any forthcoming cardiovascular events. I have learned to keep focused and manage the gym during times we had to call 911. Most importantly, I have learned how to keep the residents wanting to come back.
The fitness center is a place of socializing just as much as it is a place of exercise, and this is critical to keep the residents engaged. We work with them, answering any general questions and guiding some members through every exercise in their program. We are there for them every step of the way (literally in some cases), and they are there for us in return. Unlike a rehabilitation clinic, we see the same faces over the years, and so much of what we do involves establishing a close-knit relationship with the members, which incentivizes them into pursuing an active lifestyle. I will be leaving at the end of December to start an internship, and it will be a bittersweet goodbye when I have to leave these people that have come to feel so much like family.
For me, it was a homecoming. I had already spent four years in Gainesville, getting to know the lay of the land: learning to time the bus schedule just right, memorizing all library hours, weekends and holidays included, and knowing at all costs to avoid the intersection of 13th St and University Ave during rush hour. I had spent a gap semester, during fall of 2016, working as a camp counselor in Ohio, and for the first time in my life, I found myself aching for Florida. I longed to be back on the UF campus, to walk down Stadium Road, to (for the umpteenth time) get lost in the Florida Gym. I had heard this sort of thing happen to my friends who had left Gainesville for a job only to return a few years later, but I couldn’t imagine it would have happened to me. I didn’t realize how affectionate I had become toward the city until I left it.
I was coming back to pursue a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and after having been out of the classroom for the duration of 2016, I was actually excited to be learning and studying again. I arrived back in Gainesville mid-December of 2016 to get my affairs in order, and as I opened my car door to the Florida air for the first time in four months, I was met with nothing less than 90% humidity. Ah, not much had changed.
And that I found to be true across much of campus. Sure, some new buildings had gone up in my absence, and campus certainly felt more crowded between classes these days, but for the most part it still gave me that funny sensation of being surrounded by thousands of people just as eager to learn about life as you are.
I was coming back home. I was returning to my friends, my professors, even my job. I was coming back to be the new graduate assistant at the Oak Hammock Fitness Center, and I think that goal was what drove me the most. I had already worked at Oak Hammock for a couple of years and seen a handful of GAs come through the doors. I had formed close relationships with the members, gained confidence as an instructor, and slowly come to know the ins and outs of the place. It felt like I had been preparing for this role, and it felt wonderful to have the chance to step up to bat. (I can’t be sure, but is that what a promotion feels like?)
After a few signed papers and U-Haul trips, my life was back to normal. Coffee and school and work, with the occasional run in the evenings and the more-than-occasional cramming for the paper I almost forgot to read. I was the happiest I’d been in a long time. I just wish I could have known how quickly the entire year would fly by and how it would be too soon before I moved on for good.