Dr. Nicola Margaret Gerrett
Creating Strategies to Enhance Sweating in Ways that Improve Heath
JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Kobe University, 2016-2018
Lecturer, University of Worcester, UK, 2012-2016
Ph.D. (Physiology), Loughborough University, UK, 2012
Coming to Japan from the UK, Dr. Nicola Margaret Gerrett is conducting research with her host Dr. Narihiko Kondo at Kobe University under a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship. We asked Dr. Gerrett about her research activities and life in Japan.
Q: What are you currently researching under your JSPS fellowship?
My research area is body temperature regulation, focusing specifically on sweat gland function. I have recently been investigating how the sweat glands regulate the amount of ions, such as sodium chloride, lost through sweating. When the sweat glands are stimulated they fill with both water and ions. As the sweat travels through the sweat glands towards the skin surface the water remains inside the gland whilst the ions are reabsorbed back into the neighboring cells. This is called ‘sweat gland ion reabsorption’ and it prevents an excess loss of ions through sweating. Without this mechanism we would lose a substantial amount of salt when we sweat, which could eventually dehydrate the body, strain the cardiovascular system and increase the risk of hyperthermia. This is a relatively neglected area in thermoregulatory research despite the fact that sweating, a unique human physiological function, is essential for keeping body temperature within a safe range.
At Lougborough University, UK
Q: Your research subject sounds very interesting. How did you come about choosing it?
I studied Sport and Exercise Science as an undergraduate and master’s student focusing specifically on exercise physiology at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. I found the topic of temperature regulation a fascinating one as it highlights the limits of human performance, not just in a sporting sense but also in terms of physiological capacity.
I started studying sport science as an undergraduate due to my keen interest in enhancing sports performance but as I continued into my research career I have found that my research interest have changed. I still have some small sideline projects in sports performance but I am particularly keen on aging and helping those with impaired physiological function.
I really enjoy the diversity of my research, as I have been able to conduct research with a diverse population. People seem to really enjoy telling me how much they sweat when they exercise or during the summer!
Dr. Gerrett at her laboratory
Q: Could you elaborate a little more on the work you’re doing?
I started my current research project focusing on the basics; investigating factors that regulate the sweat glands’ ion reabsorption capacity, such as sex, age, fitness status, skin temperature and different heating protocols (exercise vs. sitting in a hot room). These studies have helped build a bigger picture of sweat glands’ ion reabsorption and have consolidated our measurement techniques. I have since focused my attention to the issue of aging, which causes many physiological functions to deteriorate and sweat gland function is no exception. Japan and many other countries have an aging population, and with the global warming the risk of heat related disorders is likely to increase. However, despite the age-related decline in sweat gland function, there are methods to attenuate this response. In the final year of my fellowship I am investigating methods to enhance elderly peoples’ ability to sweat and at the same time reduce the ions they loose with exercise training and repeated heat exposure. The technique is known as heat acclimation. I am hoping this strategy will reduce the risk of heat related disorders in elderly individuals.
We have worked with some older individuals. Japan’s older population are amazingly active people, so it has not been difficult to recruit participants. I have one, aged 70, who runs marathons annually and quite often runs from Kobe to Osaka as part of her training. She is inspiring!
Q: You’re at the mid-point of your JSPS fellowship. What’s been most challenging in your research so far?
My pilot testing has been the most challenging as I was planning to implement a heat acclimation protocol for elderly individuals. Heat acclimation is a process of exposing individuals to a repeated heat stimulus (1-2 hours per day) for approximately 10 days. Typically you increase one’s core temperature about 1.0°C above their baseline value (usually 37°C) by making them exercise in a hot room (>30°C). Working with such individuals I have to be particularly careful of their safety and wellbeing. I will always do some self-testing and will experience every aspect of my experiments to ensure I understand how it feels to exercise or sit in hot conditions for extended periods of time. In such situations I try to imagine whether I would allow my parents or grandparents to do such tests! Getting this test started has taken longer than I expected but it is integral part of the scientific process.
Q: What’s your impression of Japan’s research environment compared to that of the UK?
Actually I think it is not that different. Admittedly, Japan’s culture is very rich and you can witness its historical tradition in today’s modern society even if you never leave the lab! But the research environment is essentially the same and good science is (or at least should be) the same wherever you go; meticulous attention to detail, a keen eye for ensuring accurate and reliable data, and thorough analysis of the data.
Having said that, one of the biggest differences I have found in Japan is the sparsity of female researchers. Whenever we attend conferences, laboratory exchanges or social gatherings I find that I am often the only female. This is challenging but I like to think of my fellowship as both a research and cultural exchange. I see this as an opportunity to show others that females too are capable of a career in science.
Q: Please give some advice to young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan.
If you are seeking a challenge then this is it. Japan has this amazing ability to push you out of your comfort zone, broaden your mind and develop your skills in so many ways. Undoubtedly you will have a fantastic opportunity to work with intelligent hard working scientists and have access to modern technology, but it’s the personal development may be something you won’t get to experience anywhere else.
In terms of scientific advice, I would recommend developing a good relationship with your potential supervisor before applying or coming to Japan. Email and Skype are useful for this purpose. Also, seek out international conferences that you both might attend. I would recommend thoroughly discussing your research ideas and ensure that you both agree on the topics you plan to study. Japanese culture can prevent even the hardest of professors from saying what they really feel in order to ‘save face.’
Dr. Gerrett’s host Dr. Kondo at a conference
Dr. Gerrett greeted us warmly despite her busy involvement in an international conference she was attending. In our interview with her, we were impressed by the care with which she treats the elderly Japanese people who assist her as subjects in her “heat acclimation” experiment, which exposes them to various heated conditions. That she meticulously self-tests everything in advance bespeaks how she thinks of them as her own parents or grandparents. We join Japan’s elderly in wishing her the utmost success in her important work to improve sweat gland function and related health in the aging.