Spring 2013 Newsletter | Biology | Marquette University

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Dr. Robert Fitts - MU Faculty 1976-present

A career spanning nearly 50 years in exercise physiology

FittsDr. Bob Fitts has had a lifelong interest in human performance, and has participated in athletics for as long as he can remember. As the youngest of six children (only 2 minutes younger than his twin sister Marj), he played “knee football” with his brothers who were 7 and 11 years older (they were on their knees while Bob played standing). His interest in running as a sport took off following high school while he served in the US Army from 1960-63. After discharge from the service, Bob entered the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland where he earned his B.S. in 1967. While at Cortland, he was fortunate to meet Dr. Dave Costill, who at the time was a young instructor, and assistant professor of exercise science, and the cross-country coach. Dave’s enthusiasm about exercise physiology jump started Bob’s interest in that field. In 1967, he entered the master’s program in physiology at the University of Buffalo where he was fortunate to study with some of the leading physiologist of that era including Dr. Herman Rahn (a noted respiratory physiologist) and Dr. Don Rennie. The latter had an interest in exercise physiology and he recruited Bob to a project studying the aerobic fitness of the Alaskan Eskimo. Bob’s master’s thesis centered on the question of whether or not Eskimos with an active life style would have superior aerobic power to the general US population. The research included spending two summers on the Arctic Ocean in Wainright, Alaska. Bob, an energetic but naïve young scientist, intended to open his lab for testing each morning at 8 am, but what he rapidly learned was due to constant daylight,the time of day was of no consequence in Wainright. The town’s inhabitants stayed up to 2 am and got up around 11 am, so Bob adjusted his work day to run 3-11 pm. What Bob discovered was that the Eskimos did not have superior aerobic power to other Americans, and this was attributed to the incorporation of motorized snowmobiles which led to a more sedentary life style. Bob’s two year stay in Buffalo changed his life not because of the science, for while that was important to his career, it was in Buffalo that he met his future wife Mary Ellen Marasi. Bob earned his M.S. in August of ’69, and married Mary Ellen on January 24, 1970 during a blizzard that produced heavy snow even by Buffalo’s standards.

After completing his M.S. in ’67, Bob went to the University of Wisconsin Madison to study with Dr. Bruno Balke who was credited with being the first exercise physiologist to chart the precise relationship among oxygen consumption, exercise and cardiovascular health.  Bruno was considered one of the pioneers in the field of exercise science, and Bob learned from him some of the principles of physiology that he still uses today in his teaching and research at Marquette. While Bob learned much through course work and conversations with Bruno, he ended up doing his Ph.D. thesis research with two other scientists, Drs. Fran Nagle and Bob Cassens. His work, carried out at the Muscle Research Institute, was directed at determining the effects of endurance exercise-training on the cellular properties of limb skeletal muscle. At that time very little was known about the benefits of regular exercise and the evidence on muscle was restricted to the observation that exercise increase mitochondrial number and tissue oxygen uptake. Bob’s work focused on exercise adaptations in muscle performance, and his thesis work was the first to demonstrate that regular exercise increased muscle velocity and power, and reduced fatigue. The latter observation would lead to one of Bob’s long time research interest at Marquette and that is elucidating the cellular mechanisms of muscle fatigue and the role of exercise-training in its prevention.

Bob completed his Ph.D. in 1972, and accepted a postdoctoral position in the laboratory of Dr. John Holloszy at Washington University School of Medicine. At the time, John had recently published the first paper demonstrating that all muscle fiber types (both slow and fast) increased their mitochondrial number in response to regular endurance exercise. The lab was at the forefront of muscle research, and Bob joined a group of postdoctoral fellows that included Ken Baldwin, Frank Booth, Ron Terjung, Mike Rennie, and Will Winder -all of whom went on to distinguish themselves as independent investigators in the field of exercise science. With this group of scientist as a stimulus and sounding board, Bob continued his studies on the role of exercise in improving contractile function, and began a series of studies on muscle fatigue that formed the background for his work at Marquette. One of his publications during this time uncovered the relationship between the amount of daily training, glycogen utilization, and tissue respiratory adaptations that was widely read and quoted, and in 2007 was awarded a classic paper award by the American Journal of Physiology.

After four years in St. Louis (which included the birth of his first child Ryan in 1974), Bob accepted a tenure-track faculty position in the Department of Biology at Marquette. He inherited a lab in the basement of WLS that had not been used for a few years and that had been designed for fish rather than muscle biology. His first year, he barely kept his head above water developing a new four credit physiology course and setting up his research lab. Going was slow at first with small research funds coming from Marquette’s Committee on Research, and start-up funds. But in 1978, the lab began to take off with Bob’s first NASA grant (a funding source he was able to maintain for 30 consecutive years)  to study the effect of inactivity on muscle structure and function. Early on, this work was carried out in collaboration with Drs. Courtright and Unsworth, colleagues in the department. NASA’s interest in muscle research was stimulated by the observations on Skylab in the mid-1970’s that muscle atrophy was a big problem associated with microgravity. Bob realized that microgravity represented the other end of the activity spectrum from what he had been studying -that being exercise-training adaptations, and so his first grant with NASA centered on using an animal model to mimic inactivity, and determine the organelle within muscle most effected. This work led to a series of papers in the early 1980’s that uncovered cell and molecular changes in the protein myosin (published with Dr. Unsworth), alterations in sarcoplasmic reticulum function (published with Bob’s first two graduate students Do Han Kim and Frank Witzmann), and contractile function published with Do Han and Frank. When Bob’s first student Do Han entered the lab he had recently arrived from Korea and spoke very little English. As Bob tells it, one of Do Han’s few English words was muscle, and Bob’s response was “you are in the right lab”. When it came to work ethic, few could match Do Han, and in this period of the late 1970’s Bob and Do Han would frequently be in the lab past 2 am. The arrival of Bob’s second student Frank Witzmann from Ball State University (where Dave Costill was a professor) marked the beginning of a fruitful connection with Ball State for Ph.D. and Postdoctoral students. Frank was a natural in the lab, able to do what few can and that is carry out multiple experiments at the same time. Both Do Han and Frank went onto successful careers in academia with Do Han eventually becoming a medical school dean, and Frank a professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine. This period of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s was capped by Bob’s first R01 NIH grant in 1979 and an NIH Research Career Development Award in 1980.

In 1982, Bob’s third Ph.D. student Joe Metzger arrived also coming from Ball State with a M.S. degree. Joe continued the tradition of hard working graduate students that Do Han and Frank had begun. He obtained his Ph.D. in three years and in the process published five first and two second author manuscripts. His work led to the important discovery that changes in the surface membrane action potential were important contributor to muscle fatigue during high intensity contractions, and he also conducted ground breaking studies on the effects of regular exercise on respiratory muscle function. Joe’s success continued and today he is a world authority in the field of heart physiology, and Professor and Chair of Integrative Biology and Physiology Department at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

 

Fitts Lab
Fitts Lab in the late 1980's. L-R: LaDora Thompson (Ph.D. 1991), Bob Scheidt (undergrad-currently professor of Bioengineering at MU), Paul Gardetto (M.S. 1988-currently a colonel in the US Airforce), Anne Haywood-Coohsey (research associate), Dr. Fitts, Jane Schluter (Ph.D. 1991) and Kerry McDonald (Ph.D. 1992)

The late 1980’s and early 90’s brought an interesting group of grad students to the Fitts lab beginning with Paul Gardetto (currently a Colonel in the US Air Force) who was the first student to use single fiber technology in his research, Jane Schluter, LaDora Thompson (Professor, Univ. of Minnesota), Carol Vergoth, and Kerry McDonald (Professor, Univ. of Missouri). LaDora made important contributions to understanding the role of low cell pH in fatigue work that Bob’s current student, Cassie Nelson, is pursuing, while Kerry carried out studies documenting for the first time that periods of inactivity can affect tissue blood flow, and used single cell technology to study the effect of inactivity on fiber velocity and power. In the 1986-87 year, Bob was awarded an NIH National Research Service Award which he used to study excitation-contraction coupling in the lab of Dr. Eduardo Rios (current grad student Carmela Rios’ father) in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Physiology, Rush University, Chicago. This work resulted in a series of papers in the late 1980’s on the biophysical mechanisms of the t-tubular membrane activation of calcium release in skeletal muscle, and the start of a friendship and collaboration with Eduardo that has continued to the present. The last student of the early 1990’s era was Ed Balog (Associate Professor, Georgia Tech Univ.) who took up challenging studies on the role of intracellular sodium and hydrogen ions in muscle fatigue, and continued the action potential studies initiated by LaDora. In late 1993 and throughout much of 94, Bob concentrated on writing a review article on muscle fatigue which was published in Physiological reviews in 1994. This work has since become a citation classic having been cited more than 795 times. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, three additional students earned their Ph.D. in the Fitts lab with Kris Norenberg (1998), Shannon Knuth (2000), and Ed Debold (2002, now an Assistant Professor at Univ. of Massachusetts). Kris studied the role of high intensity exercise in improving muscle function, while both Shannon and Ed continued studies elucidating the role of hydrogen and inorganic phosphate as causative agents in fatigue.

 

fitts lab
Fitts Lab in the mid 1990's. L-R: Jennifer Sherwood (Ph.D. student), Kris Norenberg (Ph.D. 1998), Janell Romatowski (research associate-currently Laboratory Coordinator for department), Vavara Grichko (post-doc), Shannon Knuth (Ph.D. 2000), Kameha Kidd (undergrad) Cindy Blaser (research associate), Dr. Fitts, Gwen Gettleman (research associate), and Jeff Widrick (post-doc)

From the late 70’s up to the early 1990’s, the microgravity research in the Fitts’ lab had made many advances in understanding disuse induced muscle wasting and the detrimental effects on muscle function, but it was not until 1993 that opportunities to fly experiments in space occurred. This work began with collaborations with French and Russian scientist on cellular studies on monkeys flown for 18 days on the Russian Soyuz space craft, continued with a 17 day Life and Microgravity Science (LMS) human mission on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1996, and cumulated with a series of studies on the effects of long duration (6 mo.) space flights in humans on the International Space Station (ISS) from 2002 through 2008. The short duration LMS flight resulted in a cover story photo and article in the Journal of Physiology, while the long duration ISS studies were published in Journal of Applied Physiology and Journal of Physiology. All of these studies were carried out with Bob’s good friend and colleague Danny Riley at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and the human studies with Dave Costill and his colleague at Ball State, Scott Trappe. Bob describes the labs space involvement as a real team effort and one that could not have been carried out without a host of superb scientist including research associates Cheryl Brimmer (1979-1985), Anne Heywood-Cooksey (1986-1992), Cindy Blaser (1993-1999), Janell Romatowski (1990-2005), Jim Peters (2003-2009) and Patti Colloton (2000-2005), and postdoctoral fellows Vavara Grichko (1992-1997), and Jeff Widrick (1995-2000). The magnitude of Jeff’s contribution can be appreciated by the fact that he published eight first author and four second author papers during his time in the lab.

Throughout his career, Bob has taught the department’s human physiology course and exercise science. The former is an upper division undergraduate course with majors from Biological Sciences and Physiological Sciences as well as many of the students in the Physical Therapy program. Bob relates that he has truly enjoyed teaching and interacting with students in lecture as well as with undergrads and grads who have conducted research in the lab. Undergrads have been an important fabric of the lab, and this has been particularly true over the last eight years while Bob served as Chair of the Department. Since 2000, some of the undergrads who have worked and contributed to the lab include Amy Stephens, Ben Beran, Brooke Rogers, Bria Meyers, Cathryn Krier, and current students Laura Mark, Connor Callahan, and Joe Rehfus. In the last nine years as department chair Bob has worked hard for a new Life Sciences building and developed a program statement for the building in 2007 with the then College Dean Mike McKinney. While the building has not yet been built, it will be. As chair, Bob worked to improve the current infrastructure by developing an imaging lab including acquiring an NSF grant for a confocal microscope, developing a new undergrad support lab, and renovating the second floor to include new labs, as well as temperature and cold rooms. Bob worked hard to improve/develop communication with students and alumni by working with staff (particularly Kirsten Boeh) to update the web site and develop the newsletter. Working hard to promote the faculty in the department, Bob is most proud of their accomplishments. As he puts it, they have made the job of chair enjoyable and rewarding. Besides great students and research associates throughout his career, he relates that the job of chair was made easier and progress possible in large part due to Sandra Hughes and Patti Colloton who have served as Assistant to the Chair.

 

Fitts Family
Dr. Robert Fitts and his family

Bob’s interest in exercise extends outside of his university research and teaching to include a lifelong participation as a competitive runner, a sport where he has had considerable success from his college days as an NCAA champion in track and cross country, post-college as a US champion in the marathon, and even today as an age group runner, although he relates that there are very few runners left in his age group. His interest in sport carried over to his children as well (boys Ryan, Eric, and Paul, and a daughter Lara- see family photo) where Bob coached their soccer teams for 15 years, and cheered them on in their other activities. All four of Bob’s children worked in his lab either as a summer job (Eric and Lara) or as students at MU (Ryan and Paul). All are married with children of their own, and the grandkid total is five with two on the way. Family is all important to Bob, and Mary Ellen is his great love and best friend. On sabbatical next year, plans include travel and quality time with the grandkids.

Notable awards:

2007 American Journal of Physiology Classic paper Award

2001 Lawrence G. Haggerty Faculty Award for Research Excellence

1998 American College of Sports Medicine Citation Award for Research Excellence

1997-2003 Wehr Distinguished Professor

1986-87 NIH National Research Service Award

1980-85 NIH Research Career Development Award

1980-present American College of Sports Medicine Fellow

 

 

 


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