Gillen, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto, leads an exercise metabolism research lab. When she applied for and was subsequently awarded an ACSM Research Endowment grant, she was at a critical point her career.
“It was the first grant I received as a new principal investigator,” Gillen says. “I had just gotten my faculty position, and so I was really grateful for this funding to help start my research lab.”
Gillen, who was inspired to pursue kinesiology and nutrition research after a particularly fruitful mentorship in her fourth year of undergraduate studies with Dr. Martin Gibala, now researches the effects of different exercise and nutrition strategies on carbohydrate metabolism, both from the perspective of basic science and in terms of overall health outcomes.
“We know that exercise is good for blood sugar regulation and improves insulin sensitivity, but there are still unanswered questions regarding the types of exercise that are most effective and the underlying mechanisms,” Gillen says.
The ACSM funding allowed Gillen to get her lab up and running; the initial study she was pursuing, which led to the publication of “Interrupting prolonged sitting with repeated chair stands or short walks reduces postprandial insulinemia in healthy adults,” required proficiency in a number of research techniques, from exercise testing, blood sampling, muscle biopsies, nutritional preparation, wet lab analysis, and molecular biology. (Gillen and her team would go on to publish a second manuscript, “Walking or body weight squat ‘activity snacks’ increase dietary amino acid utilization for myofibrillar protein synthesis during prolonged sitting,” under the auspices of the same ACSM grant.)
“All of those methods were required to conduct the project that ACSM gave us the funding for, so it allowed me to establish these methods within my lab at the University of Toronto,” she says.
The boost from ACSM put Gillen in a position to train up her graduate students in these critical techniques, giving her and her team the foundation they needed to pursue their subsequent research. The grant also supported a fruitful partnership for Gillen and her trainees with another member of the Toronto faculty:
“This project wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my faculty colleague Daniel Moore, who is an expert in protein metabolism and exercise,” Gillen says. “We collaborated on the project to explore the effect of activity snacks on both postprandial glucose and protein metabolism. The grant assisted in supporting that collaboration, which also resulted in an enriching and cross-disciplinary learning environment for our trainees.”
But because Gillen received the grant in 2019, the team found their work somewhat unexpectedly and abruptly interrupted by COVID-19 lockdowns, and they weren’t able to get into the lab for some time. Fortunately, they had already completed most of their initial research, and ACSM was able to bridge the gap.
“ACSM was really helpful. They were very generous with grant extensions, which allowed us to fulfill the project goals under fairly challenging times,” Gillen says.
Despite the interruption, the research itself was rather fast paced. In a short while, Gillen was able to use results gleaned from the original ACSM-backed work to apply for further funding — a key step for a new PI.
“We ran the study quite quickly,” Gillen says. “We were able to get ethics approval right away. The project took about a year to run, and then we were quick on analysis. So within two to three years of getting the grant, we were able to use some of that data to apply to more grants.”
Gillen and her team are now working on a number of projects focused on understanding how exercise alters insulin sensitivity and associated mechanisms. For example, they are investigating if pre- and post-exercise nutrition modulate the glycemic effects of exercise, and exploring if there are sex-based differences in skeletal muscle mechanisms underlying exercise-induced improvements in insulin sensitivity.
What would Gillen say to someone on the fence about applying for an ACSM Foundation grant?
“It’s such a great opportunity to generate initial data that could be leveraged for larger grants and additional projects,” she notes. “Also, getting a grant from ACSM, a prestigious exercise organization — having that on my CV is valuable as well. All around it was a fantastic opportunity.”