The Long Game

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By Holly Farason ’18 & Laine Zizka ‘19

Melody Phillips and Mike Levitt in a TCU Kinesiology lab

Melody Phillips (left), an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology, processes research samples with Mike Levitt ’19 (right), then a graduate kinesiology student, in the Exercise Physiology Lab at TCU. Phillips and Levitt worked together throughout Levitt’s undergraduate and graduate education at TCU.

There are many factors that can lead to inactivity-related diseases. Navigating these factorswith research takes time, experienced faculty and dedicated graduate students. TheDepartment of Kinesiology at TCU is up to the task.

“I study exercise immunology,” said Melody Phillips, an associate professor with the Department of Kinesiology. “My main area of study is inflammation and how exercise – whether aerobic or resistance or both – reduces inflammation associated with inactivity-related diseases like obesity, heart disease, type two diabetes, Alzheimer’s and osteoporosis.”

Phillips has taught at TCU since 2004 and is an exercise physiologist by training and education. Many graduate and undergraduate students have worked with her to investigate how exercise reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and other inactivity-related diseases. Recently, she and her students have examined the effects of exercise on reducing inflammation.

Phillips and her team began recruiting post-menopausal, overweight women between the ages of 55 to 75 years old. This population was chosen because when post-menopausal women stop producing estrogen, they experience an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Since being overweight is also a big risk factor, Phillips wanted to look at a population who is at a higher risk of developing diabetes or cardiovascular disease. 

Assisting Phillips in the lab were graduate students Maria Cardenas and Mike Levitt. Cardenas, who is currently working on a doctoral degree at Emory University, was in charge of logistics including subject recruitment, daily schedules, bench work, in vitro assays and flow cytometry in the lab. During TCU’s 2019 Convocation of Academic Excellence, Cardenas was recognized for presenting the University’s oustanding master’s thesis. Mike Levitt, who began working on this project as an undergraduate student at TCU, was in charge of performing experimental techniques after blood was collected from the participants, including flow cytometry and in vitro assays, and served as the lead exercise trainer for the study.

Mike Levitt working in a TCU Kinesiology lab

Levitt works with his classmates in Phillips’ lab space at TCU. The Exercise Physiology Lab endeavors to identify new ways in which exercise combats disease.

“Specifically, I have focused mainly on a technique called flow cytometry which utilizes fluorescently-labeled antibodies to categorize cells based on their various properties,” said Levitt. 

The participants were randomly divided into two groups, an exercise group and an education group. The exercise group came to campus three times a week to exercise for one hour using a combination of walking and resistance training. The education group came to campus two times a week for education sessions, such as talks on general health and earning their CPR certification. 

“The reason we had them come in for the education is to control not only as a non-exerciser, but to control for social interaction,” Phillips said. “When the ladies come in, they’re making friends and that in itself can change immune response. If people are depressed, consistent exercise may make them happy and depression lessens.”

Before and after the research, Phillips and her team had the women come in for an experimental trial where they collected blood and measured flow-mediated dilation, which is used as a functional measure of arterial health, before and after controlled bouts of exercise. 

“The worse your FMD, the higher at risk you are for heart disease,” Phillips explained. “The better your FMD, the less risk … we wanted to see if this particular exercise bout would influence our many markers on cardiovascular disease.”

Levitt said that the team is still analyzing data from the current project, but their preliminary work has been interesting so far. 

“We observed a relationship between aerobic fitness and the number of platelets that are bound to monocytes,” Levitt said. “We believe this indicates that physical fitness status has an influence on how platelets and monocytes interact. This may provide some insight into one potential mechanism that exercise training reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.” 

According to Cardenas, they found that T-helper 17 lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, displays elevated cell counts in obese, sedentary, post-menopausal women. 

“Our results suggest that the Th17 phenotype is associated with metabolic and glucose control in obesity and may be one of the key reasons why obese individuals are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes,” Cardenas said.

Data are still being analyzed, but Phillips submitted two abstracts to a biology conference and her students prepared posters for the Texas Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine conference they attended in February 2018. 

“I started some of the big project that we’ve just finished in my undergrad so it was really cool to see people come through and help with the beginning stages of it but then they had to leave and they were never able to see the project through,” said Levitt. “Then people come in and didn’t see the planning phases. It’s a really cool big picture view of it all.”

When looking back on this project, Cardenas and Levitt enjoyed working in Phillips’ lab. 

“The atmosphere with the other graduate and undergraduate students made it a fun and productive environment,” Cardenas said. “I am very grateful for the research opportunities the lab provided, as I was able to become a better researcher throughout my two years. My experience in Dr. Phillips’ lab prepared me for research work at Emory University, and for that I am grateful.” 

Mike Levitt teaching a TCU Kinesiology lab group

Levitt teaches undergraduate kinesiology students during an exercise physiology lab. Levitt also acts as the teaching assistant for the lecture class and supervises undergraduate research projects.

The research goes far beyond the lab setting, though.

“Not only are we proving to the scientific community that exercise is beneficial but we also had a direct impact on 40 women’s lives in the DFW area,” said Levitt. “Small things like that go a little bit deeper past the scientific community and it’s going to be a great contribution once we end up publishing that but we also had a direct impact on people’s lives.” 

The chemistry between students and faculty is paramount in a research setting, and the Exercise Physiology Lab at TCU is a strong example of a healthy relationship, in which students become colleagues.

“Dr. Phillips has given me incredible opportunities to be involved in major scientific research projects,” Levitt said. “She gives me the freedom to explore my own interests and the opportunity to potentially change what we currently know about the relationship between physical activity and cardiovascular disease.”

Phillips is quick to credit students like Cardenas and Levitt who work with her, and considers herself spoiled with talented and dedicated students. 

“I’ve got a great research team,” Phillips said with a smile. “I just love my students.”