Student Research Demonstrates Need for Federal Funding to Answer Health Questions

November 2, 2016

Matthew Ganio, from left, Aaron Caldwell and Cory Butts met with U.S. Rep. Steve Womack in the Human Performance Lab on Oct. 19 to discuss University of Arkansas research.
Matthew Ganio, from left, Aaron Caldwell and Cory Butts met with U.S. Rep. Steve Womack in the Human Performance Lab on Oct. 19 to discuss University of Arkansas research.

It's not unusual for a professional association to ask its members to contact their elected representatives to express support for this or that piece of legislation. But, most people don't expect to hear back from the elected official.

Aaron Caldwell is in his second year of a doctoral program in exercise science at the University of Arkansas. He heeded the call when the American Physiological Society asked members to send a letter in support of increased federal funding for research in the 2017 fiscal budget. The association even provides a form letter that could be emailed, so Caldwell wrote to U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican who represents the 3rd District of Arkansas.

"Federal spending on research and development hasn't been expanded past inflation since 2004," Caldwell said. "He is my personal representative, and this was the first time I reached out since getting my Arkansas driver's license. I felt it was my duty as a citizen to contact him."

Caldwell explained in his letter that he is a research assistant who works in the Human Performance Laboratory at the U of A. He urged Womack to support increases in funding for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Veterans Administration.

A reply came from Womack's office, thanking Caldwell but also asking for help in arranging a visit by Womack to the lab in the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Building on the Fayetteville campus.

Womack came with two staff members on Oct. 19 for a tour and to learn about the research being conducted in the lab. Matthew Ganio, director of the lab and associate professor, gave a short presentation and led the tour. He also showed Womack and others in attendance a short video describing each exercise science faculty member's research.

The exercise science faculty conduct a wide variety of research that has important health implications. The purpose of all research is to build knowledge, but that also often includes conducting research that supports or refutes claims and informs decision-makers, Ganio said. U of A faculty members are answering many questions through their research, including:

  • What is the best way for older individuals to exercise?

  • How should we assess concussions?

  • What is the interaction of dehydration and diabetes?

  • What is the best way to treat a soldier during heat stroke?

Caldwell came to the University of Arkansas for his doctorate to work with professors who are studying the interaction of hydration, thermoregulation and cardiovascular function and how they affect a person's overall health.

In the lab this semester, Caldwell is studying how people perceive their level of hydration and what they know about the effect of hydration on their bodies. His long-term goal is to see the effect proper fluid intake has on cardiovascular health. Caldwell is also studying the physiology of heat stress and how different factors, such as obesity, may affect a person's risk of heat stroke. He is studying methods to improve the health of arteries because poor cardiovascular health, and related health effects, are a leading cause of death.

He hadn't expected to hear back from Womack's office.

"It's pretty exciting, nice to know you're heard sometimes," Caldwell said.

Cory Butts is another doctoral student conducting research in the Human Performance Lab, including projects that have military applications, which is a primary interest of Womack, who served in the Army National Guard. Womack's more than 30 years of service included command of the 2nd Battalion, 153rd Infantry, 39th Separate Infantry Brigade, which was mobilized for duty in Egypt following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Butts, a former medic in both the Colorado and Texas Army National Guard, has assisted with research testing different methods of cooling the body that could be used in military operations.

"My master's degree work was also on heat stress, and I saw the direct effects of heat stress at monthly Guard drills," said Butts, whose brother and father also served in the military. "I understand how this research can really benefit the military population."

One study he assisted with found that a technique being used - wrapping the body in bedsheets soaked in ice water - was not very effective, information that is important for military officials to have when making decisions about treatment.

"The standard treatment for someone suffering from exertional heat stroke is placing them in an ice-water tub," Butts explained. "When treatment deviates from that, we want to gather data to see what is effective."

He is also studying how kidneys function during heat stress and different levels of hydration as well as whether dehydration may add to kidney stress when exercise involves muscle damage and heat stress, recently completing a study with a local high school football team.

Both students say research funding is vital if scientists are going to find answers that can help protect people from heat stress in a variety of settings as well as to many other, related health questions.

"Government funding for research is very important," Butts said. "The analysis we're doing can be quite expensive, especially with kidney function. Having proper funding means we can conduct the studies that need to be done so we can advance safety."

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