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08 Apr 2019

Exercise takes your immune system for a ride

Doherty Institute PhD student Catriona Nguyen-Robertson, a Convergence Science Network science communication officer, recently participated in the 2019 FameLab Victoria semi-final.  FameLab invites early career researchers to share their science stories in three minutes in a live format.  Catriona came second and will compete in the national final in Perth in May.  Here she shares her journey so far. 

This article first appeared on the Convergence Science Network website.

If you’ve exercised today, your immune system might be a little different.

Last week I participated in the Victorian FameLab Semi-Finals. I had three minutes to stand in front of an audience and tell my story with only a few props.

I told the tale of how our immune system is influenced by exercise. A strenuous workout induces a temporary dampening of the immune system: there is a decrease in the number of certain immune cells that circulate around the body in the blood, and their protective abilities are weakened. In most of us, this effect doesn’t have a significant impact and there wouldn’t be much difference between someone who moderately exercises and someone who doesn’t exercise at all. The most striking change is seen in elite athletes, who are more likely to suffer respiratory tract infections after peak training periods. This could be due to the increased levels of stress hormones and other molecules in their blood, an excess of which can impair some immune functions, such as their ability to kill infected or cancerous cells.

I love teaching and have no issues in front of a class full of students but giving a judged, structured talk is completely different. I often feel incredibly nervous before I present in front of a crowd – sometimes to the point of physically shaking beforehand. Leading up to the FameLab Semi-Finals, I was fiddling, fidgeting, and barely eating throughout the day.

My main problem is perfectionism. An enforced time limit, especially of only three minutes, means that there is no wiggle room to forget or stumble over words. I feel as though I have to be perfect in my execution. I also see myself in the science communication sphere in the future, and therefore place an immense amount of pressure on myself to do well in scenarios such as this.

Once I’m up there, everything changes and I become a different person. I don’t consider myself much of an actor (although I have performed in musical theatre in the past), but perhaps I adopt a different persona on the stage. It’s not that I’m not genuine – in fact I discourage anyone from not being themselves because everyone has their own style of presenting –  it’s more that my self-doubt dissipates, while my enthusiasm and an almost Playschool-like character shines through as I tell my story.  

Unfortunately, my talk didn’t all go according to plan. I planted friends in the audience to throw “bugs” at me, but one missed. Thankfully, in the moment I was able to make a smooth recovery – ‘just because you have a weaker immune system, it doesn’t mean that you’re definitely going to catch a bug’. While I may have been anxious about things going wrong before I started, once in the moment, what happens, happens. I work with what I’ve got and that idea of letting go of my negative feelings helps. When the audience laughs with you, it’s also very encouraging.

Being a perfectionist, I practiced my talk over and over again. I often find it helpful when preparing for short presentations to talk to empty room, in front of a mirror (cringe-worthy, but it’s helpful to see what you look like in order to adjust your expressions and gestures), and in front of as many friends as I can gather. I’m grateful to my family, my peers at the Doherty Institute, Jen Martin, Claire Farrugia, the Gene Technology Access Centre (GTAC) staff, and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology teaching staff. I felt very humbled and grateful for the overwhelming support I received – that’s what friends are for.

I can’t offer much advice as I’m not one to stay calm before something like this, although I know I should “just relax”. Nerves can be a good thing if we use them as a strength and not let them become overwhelming. I’m still working on that. I always hope that the more I do things like this, the better I’ll become at dealing with nerves. My nervousness beforehand makes the presentation itself all the more exhilarating when I’ve finally let it go, and I feel an adrenaline rush when it’s over.

We all have to get out of our comfort zone sometimes, because that little push that we give ourselves, could end up being a pretty fun ride.

You can see Catriona practice her talk days before she presented in the semi-final.

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