You Make It Work: Being a Travelling Powerlifter & Scientist

Giant Virus Award

Whole @$$’ing Two Things

By Strength Gal Athlete Danielle Campbell 
@danielle_micro_lifter

Being a graduate student and a powerlifter, I see a lot of my peers give themselves completely to their science or to their sport. I always thought I was in the wrong because I didn’t want to be just one thing – I wanted to pursue multiple passions. Even Ron Swanson, whose advice I’d usually take to heart, says, “Don’t half ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” Well, I’m here to tell you that Ron Swanson is wrong. You can whole ass two things… but it’s going to be pretty hard.

I study microbiology at the University of Illinois, and I’m kind of taking the scenic route to my PhD. I keep getting involved in new side projects and collaborations. And this summer, I took seven weeks away from my actual work to go to a totally optional, zero-credit, microbiology course halfway across the continent. Now before you say, “Danielle, you idiot, you’ve been in graduate school for almost six years, just graduate already,” let me explain.

I got to spend my summer in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It’s kind of a marine science Mecca. It is home to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institutio (the largest independent oceanographic research institution in the U.S.), the Woods Hole Research Center (a top think tank on climate change), and NOAA and USGS research centers. Woods Hole is also home to the Marine Biological Laboratory, a place with such a huge impact on biology that it’s hard to wrap my head around. Here is some idea of how incredible the MBL: 34% of the Nobel prizes awarded for Physiology or Medicine have been given to MBL scientists. (This makes Nobel Prizes kind of a casual thing at the MBL, they let even me hold one.)

Research submarine Alvin
A rear view of the manned research submarine Alvin. This sub can go down 20,000 ft (6.5 km) below the ocean’s surface, and was used to explore the wreck of the Titanic! Alvin calls Woods Hole home when it is not diving deeper than my worst nightmares can imagine.

The MBL offers a six and a half week intense microbiology course. When I say “intense,” I mean at minimum 12 hour days for six days a week. But they also say this course is “transformational” for its students (now that it’s over, I know this is true). You get to learn a lot of advanced microbiology from some of the world’s best microbiologists. And, if you’re a real microbio nerd like me, they say it’s a ton of fun (also true).

I was excited for the course, but nervous for my powerlifting training. I spoke to students who took the course before and  I was told again and again to just take that time off from the gym. Well I’m pretty stubborn and I didn’t like that answer. So I called my 92-years old grandfather instead. He told me, “If you care about it, you’ll make it work.” That’s more like it. (Thanks, Grandpa!)

I prepared for battle my trip. I researched gyms, I packed all my gym gear, I asked my coach for a training regimen I could handle (shout out to Jason Tremblay for being so accommodating), and made the 18 hour drive from Illinois to Massachusetts – so that I’d have my car to easily get to the gym.

The next six and a half weeks flew by. I scienced hard every day and I trained even harder twice a week. I was almost never running on a full tank of fuel; my mind and body were exhausted, sleep was scarce, and the food left me questioning how something so calorically dense could taste so bad. But I stuck to my “no excuses” attitude, kept up with my training plan, and finished every single workout.

Pink Berry Explosion
This is a view through the microscope looking at a “pink berry.” These are small (about the size of a pinhead) balls of microbes that you can find in some salt marshes. Everything in this photo is a microbe! The pink-purple microbes produce a pigment that allows them to do photosynthesis.

As you can imagine, I had some good days and some bad days lifting, but that’s not any different than at home. The biggest difference, I think, is just really planning ahead to make it work. I couldn’t skip the gym in the morning if I’d already scheduled all my experiments to accommodate a rushed morning, moved my car to the closest parking lot, packed my gym bag, and slept in my workout clothes (this, right here, is the real pro-tip in this post). It didn’t matter if I had a crummy night of sleep (many very hot nights without air conditioning), a bad day in the lab (scientists fail way more than they succeed), or a big day tomorrow (that would be every day). Once I planned a lifting session, it was set in stone.

No excuses.

Woods Hole Port
Eel Pond in Woods Hole is beautiful, even on a foggy morning! This is right across the street from the lab I worked in.

So, that’s my best advice: You can whole ass two things. You make it work. And now I am going to put this advice, and myself, to the test again, as I travel to Yellowstone National Park to collect microbiological samples from acidic hot springs! (I don’t even study hot springs, but this is a pretty amazing opportunity!)

Giant Virus Award
I was given this amazing personalized award at the end of the course… I think I talked about lifting enough! My individual project during the course was working with giant viruses (yes, they are just HUGE viruses!).