From the circus tent to the research lab

Released: Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Going from the circus tent to the research lab may sound a bit unconventional, but for Pennington Biomedical postdoctoral researcher Dr. Nicole Fearnbach, her unique path has led her to combine several fields of interest in the hopes of finding new ways to help children live healthier lives.

As a child, Fearnbach grew up hearing stories of her father's time in a well-known collegiate circus program. He often spent time teaching her common circus acts such as juggling and walking on a slack wire. These at-home acrobatics inspired her to participate in a number of sports, including gymnastics, cheerleading. Physical activity was always a priority for her family. Over the years, she participated in a number of sports, including gymnastics, cheerleading, softball and soccer.

"I ended up spending quite a bit of time at the physical therapist since I had to deal with a number of injuries," Fearnbach said. "That's what fueled my early interest in the body and how it works and heals."

As she grew into a young adult Fearnbach, like her father, became involved in the circus. She learned how to perform on the flying trapeze, the aerial cradle, and the acrobatic jump rope throughout her college career. While she earned her undergraduate degree in exercise science, Fearnbach also worked in a cardiovascular lab where she saw patients with atherosclerosis, a condition where fats and cholesterol build up inside artery walls.

"Working with those patients really helped me realize that prevention of these dangerous chronic conditions is so important and I decided that prevention is where I wanted to focus my career," said Fearnbach.

While she earned her Ph.D. in nutritional sciences and childhood obesity prevention, Fearnbach had the opportunity to develop and manage her first research study. She looked at the effect of exercise on kids' eating behavior. During the study, she tested whether exercise compared to being sedentary in the morning affected how much food children ate throughout the day.

"While we found that exercising (compared to being sedentary) didn't change the number of calories that kids ate, we did find that children who thought the exercise was harder ate more total calories throughout the day than children who thought the exercise was easier," Fearnbach said, adding that the study controlled for differences in body weight and fitness levels to ensure that all of the kids exercised at the same intensity level on the stationary bike. The study results left Fearnbach wondering if there may be a link somewhere in the brain between perceived effort during exercise and how many calories were eaten. Ultimately, a link like that could have long-term body weight implications.

"I wanted to continue this research, and I came to Pennington Biomedical as a postdoctoral researcher because of its well-known reputation in the obesity field," Fearnbach said.

Now, Fearnbach is working with Pennington Biomedical's Dr. Corby Martin (who specializes in ingestive behavior) and Dr. Owen Carmichael (who is focused on brain and metabolism imaging) under a T32 Obesity grant from the National Institutes of Health. She's also partnering with childhood obesity researcher Dr. Amanda Staiano to gather data. With all these mentors, she will be able to expand her research to better understand whether children who rated exercise as more difficult ate more calories because they found food more rewarding, because they were less inhibited after exercise, or if there is another reason altogether.

"Ultimately, we want to promote exercise, but in a way that doesn't promote negative behavior that compensates for the exercise," Fearnbach said. "The question is - can we make exercise not feel quite so hard? If we can, then we may be able to tailor ways for people - kids especially - to  develop lifelong exercise habits that feel easier and that they can adhere to for a lifetime of health."

Dr. Nicole Fearnbach graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise Science from Florida State University in 2012 before earning her Ph.D. in 2016 from Penn State University. Her Ph.D. is in Nutritional Sciences and Childhood Obesity Prevention.

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