Episode 135: Elaine Lee discusses human performance, resilience and healthspan

// Apr 18, 2022

Our guest today is Dr. Elaine Choung-Hee Lee, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Connecticut. Much of Elaine’s research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of resilience and investigating ways to help humans improve their stress resistance, adaptation and healthspan.

Elaine’s research is focused not only on understanding fundamental biology, but also on what can be done to manipulate our biology to optimize health and performance as well as preventing disease.

At her UConn research center, called the EC Lee Laboratory, she and her colleagues use genomic and other technologies to ask questions about what makes high-performing athletes and warfighters so elite.

In today’s interview, you’ll hear how an early passion for Marvel comics and superheroes helped nudge Elaine into a science career. You’ll also learn about some of her lab’s projects that range from improving warfighter resilience to studying the effects of exercise and supplementation on our immune functions.

Show notes:

[00:03:07] Dawn asks Elaine about when she became interested in superheroes.

[00:04:02] Elaine shares who her favorite Marvel hero is.

[00:05:20] Dawn asks Elaine what her favorite Marvel movie is.

[00:05:42] Ken asks when Elaine first became interested in science.

[00:06:50] Dawn mentions that Elaine had many obsessions growing up, including running and rowing, and goes on to mention that Elaine even became a rower at the University of Connecticut, asking what drew her to these sports.

[00:09:09] Ken asks what Elaine’s experience on the rowing team was like.

[00:11:43] Dawn mentions that Elaine graduated with her bachelors in nutritional sciences in 2002 and asks if that was her original intent when she first arrived at college.

[00:13:38] Dawn asks Elaine to talk about her passion for research and how the focus of her work grew from her experiences as an athlete and coach.

[00:16:14] Dawn comments that Elaine’s early experiences in genetics and nutritional sciences played a role in her career and asks what some of those early experiences were.

[00:17:49] Dawn asks Elaine if it’s fair to say that she is not merely interested in biology, but in what people and researchers can do to manipulate biology in a way that can result in functional changes for broader populations.

[00:19:13] Ken mentions that Elaine stayed at the University of Connecticut for her masters and doctorate degrees in kinesiology, asking why decided on that specialization.

[00:21:34] Dawn mentions that Elaine went for a post-doc fellowship at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove, Maine, and asks how that opportunity came about.

[00:23:59] Dawn mentions that during Elaine’s post-doc, she and Dr. Kevin Strange co-authored a paper in the journal of Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, titled “Osmosensitive gene expression in C elegans is regulated by conserved signaling mechanisms that control protein translation initiation.” Dawn goes on to mention that this paper was selected in 2012 by the Cellular and Molecular Physiology Section of the American Physiological Society as one of six finalists for its annual research recognition award. Dawn asks why this paper attracted such attention.

[00:28:56] Ken mentions that Elaine was also selected as the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory’s “Outstanding Mentor of the Year” in 2012.

[00:32:18] Dawn mentions that Elaine’s research over the years has focused on understanding the mechanisms of stress resiliency, and ways to improve stress resistance, adaptation and healthspan, asking how Elaine became interested in this angle of research.

[00:34:00] Dawn asks Elaine to talk about her use of C elegans and why they are so useful for her research into stress and resilience.

[00:38:21] Dawn mentions that Elaine’s work on the mechanisms of osmosensing and adaptation in response to osmotic stress and infection, asking her to give a brief explanation on what osmosensing is.

[00:40:45] Ken asks how well the work in C elegans translates to human athletes.

[00:43:33] Dawn asks about a study that looked at intracellular and surface heat shock protein 70 expression, as well as early apoptosis and heat tolerance of lymphocytes during 11 days of whole-body heat acclimation.

[00:48:15] Dawn asks about a paper that Elaine and Ken Strange wrote in 2012  in the American Journal of Physiology-Cell Physiology which that demonstrated for the first time that inhibition of protein translation protects extant proteins from damage brought about by an environmental stressor, and further asks how this paper challenged some widely held views about chemical chaperones.

[00:50:16] Ken asks about a paper Elaine worked on with Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney, that looked at the metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners.

[00:54:22] Ken mentions that last year, Elaine was one of the lead authors of a study that looked at how endocrine response to strenuous experience in the heat can serve as an indicator of the amount of strain experienced by the person. Elaine talks about the findings and significance of this study.

[00:56:01] Dawn asks about Elaine’s lab at UConn, called the EC Lee Laboratory, where Elaine and her colleagues study the physiology and genetics of resilience. Elaine talks about how her lab uses genomic technologies to determine what make an elite athlete.

[00:58:43] Elaine talks about her lab’s project looking at Aronia fruit in stress resilience and longevity.

[01:02:20] Ken asks what the findings have been for human performance in the heat with respect to the Aronia fruit supplement study.

[01:03:12] Dawn asks about Elaine’s project focused on enhancing warfighter resilience.

[01:06:13] Dawn asks about Elaine’s research on exercise and supplementation interventions on immune function.

[01:08:54] Dawn asks about Elaine’s research on transfer RNA (tRNA) and aminoacyl tRNA synthetases relate to the switches that regulate the genes that are important in protecting cells during stress and aging.

[01:12:32] Ken notes the disparity in many of the “omics” fields, in that they haven’t delivered many actionable changes in human performance, and asks Elaine to briefly talk about what she thinks might be necessary to bridge this gap.

[01:14:22] Ken asks Elaine to briefly explain what network physiology is.

[01:15:53] Ken mentions that electrolytes and electrolyte replacement have been a hot topic in sports performance for several years. He asks Elaine what the current ability is to personalize electrolyte replacement, and how does the baseline diet and individual differences in electrolyte loss factor in and are we able to leverage this for better performance.

[01:18:44] Dawn asks what advice Elaine gives when people ask her what they can do in terms of exercise, diet, and supplementation to improve their cognitive and physical performance as well as their healthspan.

[01:21:35] Dawn asks what Elaine does with her spare time.

[01:22:57] To close the interview, Dawn asks Elaine what she finds so rewarding about a career in science.


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Elaine Choung-Hee Lee bio

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