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Arnold School of Public Health

I Am Public Health: Justin Hardee

December 1, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, 

While many students change majors and career paths multiple times, Justin Hardee has only had to refine his over the past 10 years. His evolution moved from an interest in applying strength and conditioning to athletic performance to now trying to understand basic biological mechanisms that enable exercise to prevent and treat disease. This progression has required a lot of extra work and determination, but it is a path that clearly suits him. With just a year left in the No. 1 ranked program in the United States, the exercise science doctoral candidate already has seven first-author and three second-author publications with several in review or preparation.

Growing up in Pensacola, Fla., Hardee was interested in health and fitness due to his own involvement in sports and wanted to train athletes at a Division I university. While completing a Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise Science at the University of West Florida in his hometown, he served as a strength and conditioning coach for several of the school’s Division II teams. He had a connection to a coach at Appalachian State University and became interested in their Master’s in Exercise Science program, which has a specific track for strength and conditioning.

“The program at App State began to change the way I looked at my field,” Hardee says. “The faculty there were ‘sports scientists’ who conducted and published research. They effectively bridged the gap between science and application.”

Working under Kevin Zwetsloot, Hardee began doing research that involved studying the effects of aging at the cellular level using lab techniques, such as muscle biopsies. During this time he also worked as a strength and conditioning coach for the football and track and field teams and began teaching undergraduates, realizing that there were parallels between training, teaching and research.

“Going from strength and conditioning to more basic research was a natural transition,” Hardee says. “Both have similar qualities and involve taking someone from the beginning to an advanced skill.” He credits Zwetsloot for helping him transition from a practitioner to an aspiring scientist.

Zwetsloot also had a connection to a school that Hardee had always respected. Exercise Science Professor and Chair James Carson and Zwetsloot had both served as postdoctoral fellows under the same principal investigator, Frank Booth, an established international authority for applying molecular biology techniques to the understanding of exercise and inactivity related to biological mechanisms. This approach aligned perfectly with his own interests, so Hardee applied to the Arnold School of Public Health so that he could continue his studies with Carson.

“Coming to the Arnold School was an easy decision because their faculty members are leaders in the field as scientists, and they have a big presence in leading organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine—where several of them have served as past presidents,” he says. “I also liked that the department’s underlying infrastructure that serves to foster student development through a diverse and collaborative research agenda focused on the relationship of physical activity to health. This environment expanded my view of exercise and provided me insight on areas linking physical inactivity to diseases impacted by muscle wasting, which has become the focus of my dissertation.”

Hardee has certainly taken advantage of these opportunities, further refining his research interests to focus on the impact of physical activity on muscle wasting associated with cancer. He says his richest resource has been Carson’s Integrative Muscle Biology Laboratory.

“Dr. Carson’s NIH-funded research lab is a true PhD-driven lab,” he says. “Students get a lot of hands-on experience, which is uncommon for many top research labs.” In this student-centered, mentor-rich environment, Hardee has, in turn, mentored 10 students himself—which he believes has helped him grow as a scientist and teacher.

Through Carson’s collaborations, he landed a Research Fellowship at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas where he examined the effects of exercise training on muscle function in severely burned children during the summer of 2013. “We were able to demonstrate that beginning an aerobic and resistance training program immediately after hospital discharge could improve lean body mass and muscle function in these children,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Hardee has been recognized with various honors and awards. Just recently, the Norman J. Arnold Fellow won the first place Doctoral Student Research Award at the 2015 Southeast American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting in Jacksonville, Fla. He’s also procured his own research funding with a SPARC award from USC’s Office of the VP for Research and a grant through the American College of Sports Medicine’s Foundation Research Grant program. “These opportunities would not have been possible without the training and guidance I have received while at the Arnold School of Public Health,” he says.

Another benefit Hardee has experienced at Carolina has been the community support that comes with being a part of the Arnold School. On October 4 of this year, Hardee and his two Arnold School roommates (Amanda Robinson (Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior) and Dennis Fix (Exercise Science)) lost their rental home to flood waters. The response from their Arnold School family was immediate and overwhelming. Within a week, they had a new place to live, and generous donations helped them replace their belongings. “Words cannot describe how blessed we are to be a part of such a great community and family within the Arnold School. We are appreciative of everyone and everything they did for us,” he says.

It’s a community that will be difficult to leave when Hardee graduates in 2016 and moves on to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular and cellular biology and then a faculty position at a research-based institution. “My long-term goal is to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying physical activity’s contribution to muscle mass regulation and how increased physical activity could be used to improve therapeutic treatments in wasting conditions,” he explains. It’s a goal he is well equipped to achieve.


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