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Alex Fliflet explores the molecular intricacies of exercise

From experiences in his undergraduate and master’s programs, Alex Fliflet has come to know that research in kinesiology and exercise physiology is the perfect outlet for his curiosity.
Published on Nov. 27, 2023

Alex Fliflet is pictured above.Alex Fliflet.As someone who has been in the Champaign-Urbana area for 10 years, Alex Fliflet understands commitment. He earned his undergraduate degree in molecular and cellular biology in 2019 and his master’s degree in kinesiology in 2021 from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Previously, Fliflet worked with Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology affiliate Professor Laura Rice. Fliflet is now a third-year Ph.D. student studying kinesiology and exercise physiology, working in Professor Marni Boppart’s lab. Fliflet’s research in exercise physiology has followed Boppart’s ongoing research of astronaut fitness, which aims to replicate the restorative effect of exercise on muscle and tissue health.

As a first-generation college student, Fliflet did not always know where to begin on his journey of research and pursuing his Ph.D. But through his dedication, he was able to begin his journey, which he truly enjoys. His work focuses on capturing the molecular changes within your body during exercise. These changes are important because they carry information that can produce prolonged, beneficial changes within your body.

Fliflet’s aim is to capture these changes in order to reproduce them in another model, or another person. For people that are impacted by mobility issues, exercise capabilities may be altered. Fliflet hopes that this research will allow all people to experience the beneficial changes from exercise, even if they are unable to physically exercise themselves.

How did your research journey begin?

I was always just a very curious kid. I'm sure I annoyed my parents with all my questions, asking “Why?” and “What happened?” or “How?”

I couldn't sit still without knowing the answers to all these questions. I've always had this interest in a very specific topic, diving into the details of it and being able to pick it apart.

During my undergrad at UIUC, I was a research assistant in Professor Laura Rice's lab. There, we focused on creating interventions for people with spinal cord injuries to either help their transfer skills or improve their quality of life.

So, as an undergrad, I really started to love research. I first had the goal of being a physical therapist, applied to physical therapy school, and got into physical therapy school, but I decided that I was meant to continue on my path in research.

What were your next steps after deciding to stay involved in a research lab?

I decided to stay in my kinesiology master's program here with Professor Laura Rice. During the first year of my master’s, one of Professor Marni Boppart’s students spoke at one of our symposiums and I was just in love with the research. About two months later, I finally built up the courage and reached out to Professor Boppart. I asked if she had any Ph.D. positions in her lab. She instantly got back to me, I think it was within 30 minutes of me sending an email. Two days later, we set up a time to meet. I started in her lab a month later.

And so, it was just quick and a very fast-moving, smooth process. It seemed like a perfect fit.

What is your major research question?

We know that exercise is a great medicine and it's just a healthy thing, but why is exercise so important? What is causing these molecular changes within your body?

We believe that during exercise, your muscles or surrounding cells secrete some sort of vesicle that can carry information. This information can produce prolonged changes within your body. For example, when you're running, how is your brain actually activated during this time?

Your brain is clearly not contracting. So what are these things that are being secreted? So, the main question we're trying to ask and answer is: What benefits of exercise are actually being captured and then transported to other cells causing these prolonged changes?

How do you plan to use the results of your research to help people?

Being able to translate novel therapeutics to the general public is amazing and could be life-changing for a lot of people.

For example, when an older adult needs to undergo disuse in order to recover either from a disease or from injury, they will experience prolonged periods of bed rest, which is not necessarily good for muscle health. Either their mobility declines, or their life is affected. Similarly, people who have mobility difficulties may be unable to physically exercise or may need to modify the ways in which they exercise. Our research can help people recover faster from these injuries.

Our hope is to capture the beneficial changes from one person and then produce these changes within another person who cannot produce them through exercise themselves.

Why exercise physiology? What is your connection to this?

Exercise is very important in my life. I think everyone should be exercising, but I love putting my personal twist on exercise and my research. For me, the most important thing during exercise is you’re having fun.

Through undergrad, I always played basketball. That was my favorite form of exercise since it didn't feel like exercise. I also loved playing golf, and anything that involves a sport because it doesn't feel like you're exercising but you're still being healthy.

Much of your research involved human participation. What perspective does that offer?

While in Professor Laura Rice’s lab, I worked with college students during our research. I had to interview participants, have them go through an exercise protocol, and explain the research study to them. These interactions really helped me improve my communication skills because I had to make sure each person understood the study. I also gained a lot of experience learning how to effectively translate research. It's really difficult to start with a question and then present it to the general public. People will always wonder why we even asked the question, and it was part of my job to make them understand and care.

What stands out to you about your time at the Beckman Institute?

I just love how interdisciplinary Beckman is. You don't ever see just one specific research interest or one specific research group. It's everyone in all the different areas from computer science to psychology, and everything in between.

I love Beckman. As an undergrad, whenever I made it to this side of the campus, I looked at the building and knew I wanted to be there. It's just a statement of the University of Illinois, and just being able to say that I do work here is awesome.

This past spring, I was awarded a Beckman Graduate Fellowship. This helped prove to myself that I was worthy of a fellowship. It also really helped mitigate any imposter syndrome that comes with higher degrees for me. And I would say it's transformed me and just made me more confident overall as an individual.

What advice would you give someone who wants to be involved in research similar to yours?

Don't be afraid of failure. Especially within research, you're going to fail, but that's not a bad thing. I would never look at failure as a negative impact. When you fail, always think of what happened next or why you failed. Try to discover what happened and always use that as a learning experience. If you treat every failure as a learning experience, there's no such thing as a failure. Don’t ever be afraid to try out of fear of failure because I think the fear of not knowing is a lot scarier than the fear of failure.

I would also tell either younger generations who want to get involved or interested in research to not be afraid to shoot a cold email. Professors get emails every day and they are going to be checking their inbox, so some will definitely respond. And if someone tells you no, find the next one and eventually, if you keep trying and trying, you'll be able to stick somewhere.

Continuing in the world of research takes dedication. Who or what keeps you motivated?

I'm a first-generation college student, so no one in my family has pursued a higher education degree. I’ve had to explore this world on my own, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a wonderful support network. My friends and family all have been extremely supportive and have really pushed me through. Some days I do feel lost, but I would definitely say my grandparents are my motivation. They are proud of what I have already accomplished, and I want to continue to make them proud. It’s great to hear them brag that their grandson is a Ph.D. student doing research that could help people around the world!

Does self-motivation play a role in your research? How do you deal with burnout?

I love my research. I believe you have to love what you’re doing in order to survive on a path this long.

I’d be lying if I said I never felt burnt out. It’s normal, but I’ve found ways that help me get past it. It's always important to take a step back and recognize what you have accomplished so far. I like to journal and just to reflect back on my accomplishments. This helps me keep going, even when I have days I’m not sure of myself.

Putting things in perspective helps me realize I can keep moving forward. Even something as simple as writing in my notes app or jotting down on a piece of paper can help turn my day around. I like having access to what I journal so I can read it again and remind myself that I am capable.

What advice would you give to yourself five years ago?

I would tell myself either to just try your best and you'll most likely end up where you want to be as long as you're going to put the effort into it. I also think this is great advice for anyone who isn’t sure what exactly they want to do, but knows how to work hard.

In this article

  • Alexander Fliflet
    Alexander Fliflet's directory photo.
  • Marni Boppart
    Marni Boppart's directory photo.

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