From academia to athletics

Dr Emma Ross with the motion capture system used to create computer models of athletes exercising

Dr Emma Ross with the motion capture system used to create computer models of athletes exercising

I’m Dr Emma Ross, and I am the Head of Physiology at the English Institute of Sport. In my role I lead a team of 18 Physiologists who work with elite athletes to maximise their physiological potential and help them achieve peak performance.

I didn’t know what physiology was when I was studying my A levels and to be honest, I wasn’t even that good at science when I was at school– but I did enjoy it, and I was eager to understand it. And that’s been the momentum behind me getting where I am today – a curiosity to understand how the human body works, and a continued enjoyment of learning and discovery.

I studied Sport and Exercise Science for my undergraduate degree, at Exeter University, and then went on to study the same subject at Masters level at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Whilst I was at University I began playing rugby, and in my final year at Cardiff, I became one of very few women who can say they have run out on the hallowed turf of Twickenham to play a rugby match. It was the British Universities final, and we beat Loughborough to become Champions that year!

When I’d finished my Masters I knew that I still wanted to learn more about how the human body functions, and I was awarded a scholarship to do a PhD at Brunel University in the field of neuromuscular physiology. My PhD looked at how the brain controls the respiratory muscles (the ones that contract and relax to allow us to breathe), and investigated the mechanisms by which a new respiratory muscle training device worked, to allow the muscles to become stronger and more effective. I used techniques such as electromyography, which measures the electrical activity of your muscles and transcranial magnetic stimulation, which allows us to investigate how well the pathway of nerves from the brain to certain muscles is functioning.

Moving academic research outside the laboratory

When I finished my PhD I stayed at Brunel University to teach Physiology to Sports Science students and continue researching. One of the achievements I am most proud of during that time is challenging the traditional view that the techniques that I used for my research should be confined to the laboratory. I wanted to answer questions like how does the nervous system cope when we do excessive amounts of exercise. I drove the equipment around the south of France following a group of cyclists who were riding the Tour de France race route (which comprises 3 weeks of daily cycling for distances up to 300 km), and tested their neuromuscular function during the 3 weeks of riding. I also wanted to know how the brain coped with the low-level of oxygen availability that is experienced at altitude, so I strapped our kit to the side of yaks, and trekked through the Khumbu Valley in Nepal to conduct some experiments at 5500m, at a site close to Everest base camp.

I have generated new data and knowledge through believing that it was possible to do these types of experiments well outside of the lab environment. It required a lot of planning and preparing thoroughly so they were a success, and being so passionate about it that I convinced others to come on the journey with me. I now try to instill the same passion and belief in the PhD students that I supervise, and a number of them have gone on to do similar research in extreme environments in far-off places.

The same year that I went to Everest, was the also the year I completed my first (and only!) Ironman triathlon. That’s 3.8km swim, immediately followed by 190km cycling, immediately followed by a marathon. I had run a few marathons before that, but the Ironman was the toughest but more exhilarating race I have ever done, and I completed it in 12 hours 30mins! I moved to University of Brighton to continue lecturing and researching the following year. My research still focused on how the neuromuscular system functions in environmental extremes, such as conditions of low oxygen or high heat. I was also really interested in how impaired the functioning of the neuromuscular system becomes when we are tired, and conducted studies on runners after they had completed marathons, or had cycled to the point of exhaustion.

In 2011 I gave birth to my son, and took a year off work to spend with him. When I returned to work, I did so part-time, so that I could balance work and family life. It’s never an easy thing to do, but I have wonderful support from my family which allows me to pursue my career as well as being a hands-on mum to my little boy.

Out of academia into the world of sport

In 2013 I took up my current role at the EIS. It was an amazing opportunity to use all the knowledge and experience that I had gained studying how humans function, in an environment where you can use that to push humans to the limit of their capabilities – elite sport. I now spend my time in an exciting world, where we have to be both creative and scientific in our approach to getting the most out of an athlete.

I work with a fantastic group of scientists who are all working with the same common goal – to push the limits of human capability through understanding the physiological requirements of an event or performance, and helping to inform the training and preparation of the athlete to meet and exceed those requirements. My experience in how the body deals with environmental extremes has come in handy, as many athletes use altitude as a training tool to help improve fitness, and exercising in the heat brings challenges to an athlete that we have to help them cope with.

I would encourage any aspiring scientist to pursue the things that you are curious about, never believe that something can’t be done until you have tried, work hard and most of all have fun!

Emma Ross @ezross