The graduation cap plonked so unfashionably on the pates of doctoral graduates is hardly anyone's idea of a fashion statement - well, not the kind that will get you invited to swish parties, anyway - but three sports scientists will be among those who will don the behemoth with deserved pride this week.
Les Ansley, Liesl Grobler and Karen Sharwood are this year's PhD graduates from the UCT/MRC Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine (ESSM).
In his thesis on the Aetiology of Fatigue During Maximal and Supramaximal Exercise, Ansley examined some of the fundamental tenets of the traditional theories of fatigue to determine the extent of their role in the development and perception of fatigue during very hard physical work.
Ansley is currently lecturing at Kingston University in the United Kingdom, but will make the trip to Cape Town to attend his graduation this week.
In turn, Grobler's work into The Morphological and Molecular Characteristics of the Skeletal Muscle of Endurance Athletes with Acquired Training Intolerance concentrated on a number of ultra-distance athletes who were being racked by chronic fatigue and muscle-soreness, maladies accompanied by a sudden slump in their performances. "The hypothesis of my thesis is that many years of long-distance endurance exercise might exceed the biological limits of the body to repair and adapt to muscle damage induced by exercise," she explained.
This, Grobler added, results in maladaptation of the skeletal muscle, and the malfunctioning of the skeletal muscle system, as appears to be the case with the training-intolerant ultra-distance athletes. Grobler admits to not having a long-term (or even mid-term) career plan at the moment - "it's under construction"- but plans to stay in research. She'll survive off a Medical Research Council (MRC) grant for at least the next year as she pursues postdoc work at the ESSM on the link between eating disorders, diabetes and skeletal muscle regeneration.
Sharwood's paper, The Effects of Endurance Training on Neuromuscular Characteristics in Masters Runners, spanned four studies in which she regularly had to adapt her hypotheses as she tweaked her methodology and techniques. Her work involved a number of runners aged 45 and older who were experiencing a faster-than-predicted decline in their running performances.
Sharwood's initial hypothesis was that - lending from Grobler's study - this ebb could be put down to muscle damage. By the end of her research, however, she had come up with a fresh theory and model.
"I proposed that in these runners who are able to run for 20 to 30 years, there's a chronic training response in which there's a complete down-regulation of functions by the brain. The brain down-regulates muscle-stiffness, for instance, so that the body can better absorb the shock of running.
"But while these runners can continue running for many years, there's a decline in performance."
Come 2004, Sharwood will take a step (a small one) back from research when she takes up a post as project manager of ESSM's Discovery Health programme.
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