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David Ferguson, Ph.D.


David Ferguson, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor | Department of Kinesiology, Spartan Motorsport Performance Lab | Michigan State University

Dr. Ferguson serves as an assistant professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University. His research in exercise physiology focuses in two distinct areas. The first is how early life nutrition influences cardiovascular development as it relates to functional capacity and chronic disease in adulthood. It has been shown that individuals who are growth restricted in early life have a 47% increased risk of developing chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, hypertension and sarcopenia.  His lab aims to determine the epigenetic mechanisms that cause chronic disease in growth restricted  individuals and if exercise can serve as a therapeutic countermeasure.

Dr. Ferguson’s second area of research focuses on the physiological stress placed on automotive racecar drivers and pit crews. Drivers typically compete for two-to-four hours at speeds in excess of 170 mph, with high speeds of 230 mph reached at the famed Indianapolis 500. During this time, drivers’ heart rates reach 75-to-85% of their maximum, their core temperatures increase 2°C causing them to lose seven pounds of sweat, and they are exposed to four times the force of gravity in the corners. Despite the physical stresses, less than 30 scientific publications exist on racecar driver physiology. Dr. Ferguson’s research strives to characterize this stress and find evidence-based practices to improve safety. He has worked with NASCAR, Indycar and Formula 1 teams to increase performance and better protect drivers and crew members.  

ACSM staff asked Dr. Ferguson a series of questions to learn more about his research, advice for students and how ACSM membership has helped him.

  • Why did you choose your areas of research?

I took a wondering path to find my research interests. I originally planned to attend medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon. During my senior year of undergrad (after being accepted to medical school), I realized my motivation to become a surgeon was to earn an income that would allow me to purchase racecars. I concluded that finical motivation was not appropriate to dictate my career path. 

In reflecting on this I remembered a racing event in Las Vegas where a competitor was ill following the race due to excessive heat exposure. As so much effort went into strengthening the racecar, I thought it would be beneficial if effort was also put into strengthening the driver so that they did not fatigue in a race. I found ACSM Fellow J. Timothy Lightfoot, Ph.D., at UNC Charlotte conducting research in this area, and I chose to pursue a master’s degree under his guidance. During this process I realized how much I enjoyed research and wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but I was more interested in molecular physiology (basic science). I conducted research on the biological regulation of physical activity with Dr. Lightfoot (now at Texas A&M) and found that certain proteins in your muscle determine how much physical activity you will engage in. As I completed my Ph.D., Dr. Marta Fiorotto was conducting research on early life growth restriction with a focus on skeletal muscle and exercise. My previous work complemented her work, and I completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine under her guidance. 

Learn more about Dr. Ferguson’s research from his presentation Physical Fitness and Blood Glucose Influence Performance in IndyCar Racing.

  • What have been some of the significant outcomes of your research?

One significant achievement was being able to demonstrate that growth restriction increases disease risk because growth restricted individuals have biological programs to be less active (published in the November 2019 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise®). Our motorsport work has also had several achievements. The most notable being that we were the first to compare male and female race car drivers. We were able to show that women do not fatigue more than men, which has been a common thought in racing with no supportive evidence.  

  • What advice do you have for students or professionals entering the field?

Say “yes” to every opportunity presented to you. I am by far not the smartest scientist. The only reason I have had success in my career is that when an opportunity presented itself, I pursued it, and I have worked really hard to achieve my goals.

  • How has ACSM membership helped you?

ACSM started my career. I joined as a student more than 10 years ago. During my first national meeting, I saw ACSM Fellow Tim Lightfoot, Ph.D., speak on motorsport physiology. His talk prompted me to reach out to him and eventually inspired me to pursue a master’s degree. I am so grateful for ACSM and all the opportunities it has given me. I look forward to anyway I can help serve the organization.

  • What's one thing people would be surprised to know about you? 

My life is currently dominated by a 7-month-old Bernadoodle named Dalton.

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