When Sarah Blackwood completed her PhD in physiology at the age of 27, she had the urge to leave the comfort of her birthplace and see the world. Her wanderlust led her to a place she’d never heard of – Ariel University.
Dr. Blackwood is a physiologist who hails from Hobart, Australia’s southern-most city, located on the island state of Tasmania. Sarah was always interested in living overseas, having lived all her life “at the end of the world”. After finishing her PhD in 2017, she made up her mind to devote the next 5 years to doing core research in physiology, basically anywhere in the world. Her search led her to an online listing of postdoc positions, where Professor Abram Katz had posted an opening for a position dealing with exercise physiology through the Department of Physiotherapy at Ariel University in Israel. It was a good fit. Unlike in Australia, where the focus of research in this area primarily deals with diseases, drug-testing and clinical work, at Ariel she was able to delve into the basic science of the physiological and biochemical processes.
Sarah’s parents both teach mathematics and would like to have seen her pursue a similar career, but Sarah was always attracted to biology. As an undergrad, she spent her first two years studying pharmacy, which didn’t really interest her. She considered medicine, but realized it wasn’t for her and switched to biochemistry. A physiology class really hooked her, and she decided to follow her passion for what she terms “hard-core” science.
She studied for her Bachelor’s and Honors (the Australian equivalent of a Master’s degree) and PhD at the University of Tasmania in her hometown. As an Honors and PhD student, she studied micro-vascular blood flow through muscle and how it relates to metabolism in an animal model. Her research at Ariel involves ex-vivo studies on mice to understand the role of glycogen in skeletal muscle fatigue in high-intensity exercise.
Her main interest is the physiology and biochemistry of metabolism in skeletal muscles, the tissue responsible for the body’s movement. Skeletal muscles are also one of the key tissues involved in glucose homeostasis (regulation in the body). Type II diabetes, a lifestyle disease brought on by over-consumption of fat, leads to inappropriate fat deposits in skeletal muscles, and thereby insulin resistance. As the body produces more and more insulin to compensate, the insulin producing beta cells in the pancreas eventually die, leading to the need to take insulin. Insulin resistance leads to excess glucose in the blood, resulting in chronically high glucose, which damages the blood vessels resulting in long-term complications.
Sarah’s previous research deals with the stages of insulin resistance, particularly the effect of blood flow in muscles and the ability to take up glucose. The greater the flow of blood in the muscle directly to the cells, the greater the uptake of glucose. At Ariel University, Sarah investigates the role of glycogen in skeletal muscle and how it helps to delay muscle fatigue. An aspect of her research deals with delayed muscle fatigue in the “fight or flight” response. When we perceive danger, adrenalin (a beta-2 agonist) is released to activate the body for physical exertion. Skeletal muscle is one of the key tissues involved. In both slow-burning and fast-burning muscle types, Sarah studied the differing effects of phosphates on fatigue, the effect of temperature on recovery, and how the oxidative state of the muscle influences fatigue. “The basic idea is that adrenalin stimulates glycogen breakdown, producing more energy and delaying fatigue, so we’re ready to run,” explains Sarah.
During her two-year postdoc, Dr. Blackwood and Professor Katz published 2 papers, with two more in the works. She has presented some of her findings at meetings in Australia. From Israel, she will follow Professor Katz to Sweden for another two-year post-doc position.
On a personal level, as she approaches the end of her two-year postdoc at Ariel University, she looks back at the wonderful experiences she had and the close friends she has made from around the world. During her second year, her boyfriend came from Australia to spend a year with her in Israel. Her parents made the journey to visit Israel, as well. “I really love the Israeli holidays and having the opportunity travel to many destinations in Europe and Egypt. As an Australian I’m almost embarrassed to say that the diving in the Red Sea near Eilat may be even better than the Great Barrier Reef. You just have to walk about a meter into the water to see the most amazing corals and fish.” She finds the distances in Israel to be relatively short. “Tasmania is three times the size of Israel, with only half a million residents. There is one cattle farm in northern Australia that is the size of all of Israel!”
Sarah has always been involved in sports and athletics, like field hockey, tennis and bicycling. She rides her non-electric bike up the steep hill to Ariel University every day.
Sarah’s biggest regret is not knowing other languages. “I don’t really have an aptitude for languages. English is my only language, and I have been able to pick up only basic Hebrew, but I managed easily. The key is to just say, ‘yes’ and try new things.”
The biggest adjustments she had to make living in Israel were getting used to public transportation, working on Sundays or how things come to a standstill on Shabbat and holidays. “But, I really liked living in a different culture and getting to know people from so many different backgrounds. It made me appreciate where I come from.”