International Women’s Day 2022 will be celebrated on Tuesday, March 8th with a theme of breaking down bias, stereotypes and discrimination. The early years of exercise science and sports medicine were dominated by men, as were many of the sciences. There were, of course, exceptional early female pioneers in our discipline, including (but not limited to) women like Dr. Josephine Rathbone, Dr. Barbara Drinkwater, Dr. Charlotte Tate, and Dr. Priscilla Clarkson. These women found ways to break down stereotypes and face discrimination to achieve excellence and mentor the next generation of scientists (both male and female). I know what excellent mentorship looks like, because I was lucky enough to have been mentored by Priscilla Clarkson, Ph.D., FACSM, and I want to take this opportunity ahead of International Women's Day to highlight Dr. Clarkson’s legacy.
The most fortuitous moment in my professional life was to join the laboratory group of Dr. Clarkson in the Fall of 1999, as she had just been elected President of ACSM for 2000 (the third woman to serve in this role after Drs. Drinkwater and Tate). She spent 48 years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, including her time as an undergraduate and graduate student. She joined the faculty in 1977, eventually rising to Distinguished Professor of Kinesiology and Dean of the Commonwealth Honors College, where she led groundbreaking educational advances until her passing in 2013. Dr. Clarkson had a lifelong passion for studying human performance, starting with her background as a ballet dancer, and evolving over time with a central theme of skeletal muscle health. She pioneered early advances in the study of muscle damage caused by intense exercise, being one of the first to describe adaptive changes we now call the “repeated bout effect.” She was also a key figure in sports nutrition and exercise metabolism research, including co-authoring several important reviews and position stands. Dr. Clarkson was never afraid to pivot into new areas of research, as I found out when we joined a genetics consortium and started doing molecular biology and genetics in the early 2000s – overhauling the entire wetlab to enable us to ask new questions about how muscle responds to exercise (and statins, atrophy, supplements, etc.). It was not uncommon for her to be the IRB chair, on the Gatorade science board, giving the Wolffe lecture and directing a ballet at the same time, all while answering every email within the hour.
I want to share a personal reflection of how Dr. Clarkson’s influence continues to impact my life. One of the benefits of serving the American College of Sports Medicine is being asked to serve in the wider scientific community. In 2013, I was asked to represent ACSM on FASEB’s Excellence in Science Award committee. This award is essentially a lifetime achievement award for women in science, and I wish everyone could read all of the amazing applications in support of women across the scientific spectrum. The Award nomination packet includes letters from colleagues and mentees, in support of lauding their outstanding female mentors. As junior faculty at the time, it was greatly inspiring to see how great mentorship by women manifested across diverse disciplines; but, for the first several years, I read many of these letters through tears, because I had one of those rare relationships and had lost it prematurely. I served on that committee for eight years, and while it became easier to read the letters, I always compared the experiences from the letters to my time with Dr. Clarkson.
Her voice is still in my head when I’m not moving fast enough, or in one of those, “What would Priscilla do?” moments (though I must draw the line at ballet dancing). Amazingly, I know more than a dozen people who had similar relationships with Dr. Clarkson – across the spectrum from undergraduate to peer mentees (formal and informal – there are always more people whose lives she touched). We are a second family – the Clarkson family – and I am sure the group text will light up with delight seeing ACSM honor her legacy on International Women's Day.
You can learn more about Dr. Clarkson's contributions to ACSM here.
Established in memory of Dr. Clarkson, the Priscilla M. Clarkson Memorial Fund provides annual assistance to help fund travel expenses accrued by one undergraduate student to present his/her scholarly work at the ACSM Annual Meeting. You can learn more and donate to the fund here.
*Above picture: Dr. Clarkson at 2010 ACSM Conference Honor Award Ceremony with former UMASS students. From left: Eric Rawson, Sandy Hsieh, Cynthia Chi, Adam Persky, Melissa Roti, Mary Miles, Priscilla Clarkson, Maria Urso, Monica Hubal, Amy Kearns, and Kimberly Reich
Monica Hubal, Ph.D., FACSM, is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). She currently serves ACSM as a member of the Research Review Committee, and as an associate editor of both Medicine & Science in Spirts & Exercise® and Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. She was a student of Dr. Priscilla Clarkson at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.