It’s pretty common for a scientist who participates in a press conference to appear in a news article that same day. And that was indeed the case for Elin Ekblom-Bak, who presented her ongoing work on the possible detrimental health effects of sitting for prolonged periods at a July 4 satellite event at the Euroscience Open Forum in Turin, Italy. But it wasn’t her research that made the headlines; it was the critical goal she scored the previous day in a soccer match against the former champions of a professional women’s football (soccer) league in Sweden.
Ekblom-Bak, 29, is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Medicine at the Karolinska Institute and the Astrand Laboratory of Work Physiology in the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. She’s also a midfielder for a professional soccer team. It’s a combination of activities that she finds complementary. “They’re very similar, these two worlds,” she says. “At the elite, national level, playing soccer is a competition — you have to stand out, you have to be tough. Science is a tough world to show off your knowledge and … you have to dare to do things. It’s really helped me being a soccer player at that level to get the mental strength” for science.
Her research did make headlines in January when she was the lead author on an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that outlined what has become the core hypothesis of her Ph.D.: That sedentary behavior may be harmful even in people who get regular exercise. In other words, working out hard several times a week may not compensate for the ill effects of a desk job. “We know that not exercising and prolonged sitting are two distinct behaviors,” she says. There have been a handful of studies in this area (compared to thousands focused on physical activity and fitness), and animal studies suggest that prolonged inactivity — 3 to 4 hours or more — alters expression of lipoprotein lipase, which can affect, for example, muscle glucose levels, fatty acid metabolism, and cholesterol levels. Ekblom-Bak aims to clarify the role of prolonged sitting on long-term health using a population-based dataset at the Karolinska Institute. She plans to do some mechanistic studies as well, she says.
She got into health science and physiology because, as she says, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Her father is a professor of physiology, and Ekblom-Bak works in his group at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. “It’s really fascinating to be able to work with him. I really adore that.”
On the sports side of her life, she has been playing football since she was 4 years old. For her, though, it wasn’t a matter of choosing between an academic career and a sports career: “I did not choose. I loved [soccer] too much. But I saw a lot of bad examples of girls playing football and when they were 35 years old they [had] two knee injuries and no job, no education, nothing.” She trains in the afternoons and evenings, which leaves her mornings free to study and work on her research.
She juggles more than soccer balls and science. She and her husband (who is the chiropractor for her soccer team) have a 9-month old daughter. She also works as a television commentator for major soccer games, which has made her enough of a celebrity to warrant an article about her comeback after her daughter was born.
Her medium-term plans are to keep playing soccer and keep working on her research — because both the soccer and science aspects of her life are unpredictable. “It’s a tough world. You have to create your own opportunities, search for your own money and your own job,” she says. “You have to have good luck to get a good opportunity. If you have the right spirit, I think you can do it.”