Texas Health-Funded Research Fellows Contribute To Numerous Population Health Investigations

DALLAS — Two decades ago, the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM) was founded as a joint program between Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center. As part of its robust research initiatives, the IEEM, with financial support from Texas Health Resources, has hired young scientists from all over the world to buoy its research initiatives and support the institute’s mission: “to explore and define the limits to human functional capacity in health and disease, with the objective of improving the quality of life for human beings of all ages.”

These post-doctoral fellows, most having recently earned their M.D. or Ph.D. degrees, work under the tutelage of the IEEM’s renowned lab directors, whose research delves into health problems including how the heart changes as we age; obesity and its impact on breathing and exercise; the association between physical activity, brain perfusion and Alzheimer’s disease; and how body temperature affects bleeding in traumatic accidents and soldiers wounded in combat.

With the recommendation of IEEM faculty, Texas Health, through THRE, selects scientists for highly competitive post-doctoral fellowships that last generally two to three years. When finished, some stay to become fulltime IEEM researchers; others move on to research labs in other parts of the country.

Here are two post-doc fellows supported by Texas Health.

Li Zhang, M.D., Ph.D. is the newest THR post-doctoral fellow at the IEEM. Li comes from Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, located in the northwest region of China. It is one of the oldest cities in China, dating back to the 11th Century BC. In Xi’an, Li was an attending physician at Fourth Military Medical University, where she specialized in ultrasound diagnostics.

At the IEEM, Li’s expertise in ultrasonography is assisting the work of Rong Zhang, Ph.D., director of the IEEM’s cerebrovascular lab. Zhang’s primary work aims to understand the connection between brain perfusion, exercise and their connection to Alzheimer’s disease. Among other projects, his team is investigating the association between exercise and brain function as people age. The goal is to find better preventions and treatments for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia in the United States and around the world.

Li’s current work is looking into whether compromised blood flow in the brain is associated with atherosclerosis and arterial stiffness. Her work will help test the hypothesis that cerebrovascular function is impaired in patients with mild cognitive impairment, leading to reduction in blood flow within the brain, brain atrophy, white matter lesions and cognitive impairment. At Military Medical University, Li conducted research work on vascular disease. She has authored eight peer-reviewed research papers, contributed to textbooks, served as editor-in-chief of a medical publishing house, and made presentations at four major medical conferences in China.

Abigail Stickford, Ph.D., came to the IEEM from Indiana University, where she earned her doctorate in kinesiology, focusing on human performance and exercise physiology. She has authored 19 abstracts and several papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Her research interests include the role of sympathetic neural activity and vascular function in the development of gestational hypertension (high blood pressure during pregnancy) and preeclampsia, two serious complications that women can suffer from during pregnancy, threatening the life of both mother and baby. Gestational hypertension and preeclampsia affect about 10 percent of all pregnant women in the United States, and the most severe form, preeclampsia, is the leading cause of maternal and fetal death and morbidity.

At the IEEM, she has been working under Qi Fu, M.D., Ph.D., director of the institute’s Women’s Heart Health Laboratory. Their project is investigating the cardiac and vascular function of women who are pregnant and follows the study subjects for a year after pregnancy. The primary objective of the research is to determine if sympathetic neural activity can be used as a predictor for hypertensive pregnancy before any clinical signs appear.

Their work also is looking into how blood pressure is regulated in these women versus in women with prior normal pregnancies. Their findings may lead to effective prevention and treatment of chronic hypertension and cardiovascular events later in life.

Stickford’s research interests also include the cardiopulmonary differences in how the genders respond to exercise. She recently received a faculty position at Appalachian State, where she will continue her research.

About the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine
The Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM) was founded as a joint program between Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Its mission is to promote basic and clinical research, education, and clinical practice in defining the limits to human functional capacity in health and disease, with the objective of improving the quality of life for human beings of all ages. The IEEM includes ten major laboratories tightly integrated and organized intellectually along the “oxygen cascade” — the path that oxygen must follow through the body from the external environment through the lungs, heart, and skeletal muscle to perform cognitive function and physical activity. The IEEM is among the only research centers in the world that fosters the fusion of basic science and clinical medicine in a program designed specifically to study human physiology.

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