Jodi Dowthwaite, M.Phil., Ph.D.
Degree: Biological Anthropology (M. Phil., Ph.D.)
Institution: Syracuse University; SUNY Upstate Medical University
Career Stage: Early, Assistant Professor
Research Focus: Musculoskeletal Development in Relation to Physical Activity
ASBMR committee/leadership positions held: Young Investigator Subcommittee Member
What brought you to the bone field and why have you stayed?
I am fascinated with human variability, particularly during growth and maturation. I enjoy learning about how lifestyle modifications affect phenotype and disease risk. My Ph.D. research evaluated diet, exercise and psychological stress as factors in human body composition and ovulatory function. This line of research leads naturally into evaluations of osteoporosis and fracture risk in the context of the "female athlete triad". I had the good fortune to become involved in my mentor's longitudinal research study of skeletal development in relation to impact loading (gymnastics model). It’s funny, but my post-doctoral training was my first introduction to bone research that didn't apply to fossils! This research program offered me the perfect opportunity to study human growth, maturation and continuation of physical development into adulthood.
I have thoroughly enjoyed working on this project for the past nine years, witnessing the development of over 100 girls through various life stages. It has been wonderful to be able to observe them as they develop from school kids, to college women, to novices in their careers. Many are now getting married and will soon be starting families. If given the opportunity, I would like to study their growth profiles, extending from elementary school to the end of their child-bearing years. In this way, we could prospectively detail their musculoskeletal status as they progress through various phases of existence. I don't think I could ever get bored studying these fascinating people as they continue to change year after year. I guess that I am addicted to longitudinal musculoskeletal research!
How does your research make a difference?
It is important to do elegant, well-controlled research using rodents and cell lines. However, basic science doesn't take the place of good old-fashioned, chaotic, human research subjects. With humans, you might design a beautiful study where you recruit athletes and non-athletic controls, with the aim of comparing their growth over the years. However, in 10 to 15 years of free-living, some of your non-athletes may transform into national champion cross-country runners or lacrosse players, while some of your athletes develop injuries and reduce their activity. These patterns represent real life and have repercussions for physical development that need to be understood. Our research group studies human beings with uncontrolled access to hyper-variable chow, exercise modalities and activity doses. This makes the science complicated. However, the reason our group evaluates actual humans is because improving the lives of real humans is the whole point of health research. It takes a lot of patience. It is very challenging. It can be very tricky statistically. However, there is a TREMENDOUS value to longitudinal human research, and it is irreplaceable. Overall, its very complexity is what makes it relevant to health promotion programming and the informed choices that we make in our daily living.
What is a challenge you have faced and how did you overcome it?
I guess that it might be a bit premature to say that I have overcome this particular challenge, but I am certainly not giving up the fight. I definitely fall into the category of someone who has followed a “non-traditional career trajectory”. I finished my Ph.D. and immediately took a seven year career hiatus to care for my two sons full-time until they went to full-day elementary school. I had no idea of the toll that this would take on my career development, in part because I had never consulted anyone about it. Frankly, it hadn’t even occurred to me that it would be a big deal to try to break into academia having never really gotten a foothold in the first place. I guess that this just goes to show how naïve I was. The interesting thing is that the time off made me a much different worker than I would have been if I had continued on the treadmill like 99.9% of researchers. By the time I tried to break back into the “leaky pipeline”, I really appreciated the opportunity to work. I didn’t view it as just a job or a way to pay bills—I viewed my work as a privilege. Although it ended almost 10 years ago, my career hiatus continues to have repercussions in my professional development. While there have been many new funding opportunities and efforts made to make research careers more feasible for women, I have missed most of those opportunities and still don’t usually fit their criteria. The choices that I made in my 20s continue to make work life more challenging in my 40s. So far, my hard work has been paying off because I still have the opportunity to do the research that I love! The fact that I have a career at all is a major victory in itself!