Would you sign up to have bits of your thigh muscles taken out, all in the name of science?

It’s what AUT Sports Performance Research Institute (SPRINZ) doctoral candidate Dustin Oranchuk is asking of his study participants. And while it may sound like a crazy question to ask, you may be surprised he managed to find people to agree to it.

Dustin Oranchuk.

What’s it all in aid of? Dustin’s specialist research area is investigating different muscle contraction types under lower weights. Or, in sports scientist speak, eccentric quasi-isometric resistance training. “It’s about a slow fatiguing movement, as opposed to more traditional movements,” Dustin explains. “We’ll be looking at if this type of movement can have the same or similar effect as more traditional training, like heavy up and down movements.” Participants will perform a different muscle contraction type on each leg, and tissue samples will be compared to assess the impact on the muscle architecture. “The differences will be in how thick the muscles are, the angles of muscle fibres inserting in fascia, and the length of each muscle,” he says, highlighting just some of the science behind his research.

In Dustin’s own words, the muscle tissue sample, while invasive, is not overly limiting. “We’re going to be taking a few hundred milligrams of muscle, it’s nothing you’d actually miss,” he tells. “It sounds gory, but the area will be numbed, and participants will be able to walk right away. You’re not at risk of tearing the muscle just because you’re missing a few hundred milligrams of fibre. You might just need to wait a day or two before doing really heavy squats.”

His focus is on the quadriceps, how they respond to leg extension exercises and measuring their force production capabilities. If the studies prove what he is hypothesising, he is anticipating the research to benefit elderly populations or those returning to injury. “I’m expecting that it won’t be as effective as traditional training,” he says, “but that we’ll be able to impart a similar load through the muscle with fewer joint movements. It will allow for maintaining or building muscle mass in people who can’t stand 50-60 repetitions during a workout or rehabilitation.”

An example of two different ultrasound methods for determining quadriceps muscle size and structure.

Strength and conditioning is a passion for Dustin, a keen life-long sports fan who played American Football during his high school days in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Through exposure and networks, he realised that he needed at minimum, a masters degree to work in the strength and conditioning (S&C) field. “For a lot of S&C work at high levels, it’s really difficult to get a role if you don’t have a masters qualification, which is true for both the Canadian Sport Institute and High Performance Sport New Zealand,” he says.

While he entered into his postgraduate study intending to become an S&C coach, the process threw him a curveball which changed his career trajectory. “Part of the masters process is research, obviously, and teaching, and that combination really pulled me away from S&C,” he recalls. “I realised that I really enjoy engaging with curious young people, and I found research really fascinating. Academia became more appealing, and I decided to aim to become a researcher and educator, perhaps a professor down the road – in which case I needed a PhD.” Reviewing some of his most-cited academics from his own reference lists, he discovered AUT’s Professor John Cronin and Dr Adam Storey were regular features, and SPRINZ became the place for him to conduct his doctoral studies.

While he’s been based at AUT Millennium since beginning his PhD candidature over a year ago, he’s currently in Melbourne, working out of Victoria University under the other of his three supervisors, Dr Andre Nelson. “Andre has more experience in muscle biopsies, so I’ll be working with him,” Dustin shares. It’s there that he’ll be taking samples from undergraduates on campus, but he’ll be in a good position to tell them what to expect. “I will be the first person to get the biopsy done, so at least I’ll be able to tell them my experience,” he says.

He’s weary of becoming too specialised, as he knows that in the area of sports science, roles can come and go with funding. “Here in New Zealand, I’ve noticed that there is a little more focus geared towards sport, but back home in Canada, a lot of research grants and funding is more to do with public health,” he says. “I think it’s important that I’m learning skills which are applicable in many fields, and this PhD is giving me the ability to perform research on non-athletic populations.”

With just over 12 months remaining in his studies, Dustin is starting to think about his next move. With academia his preferred pathway, he’s not against putting the feelers out to see what opportunities exist. “I would consider staying in New Zealand if opportunities were available, although Australia is probably more likely,” he says. He’s hopeful he can find a post-doctoral fellowship to allow him to focus predominantly on research, before moving into a teaching position such as Assistant Professor.

In the meantime, he’s going to continue laying the groundwork for that through publishing his research, which builds his credibility as an academic. “Journal papers are important for a career in academia,” he tells. “How many are published, how often they’re cited, etc. We’ve already had two literature reviews accepted for publication, and a few brief reports and technical notes, and each of the four main studies will result in at least one paper, some of them will produce multiple papers.” There’s also an additional benefit to the publication of his research – it’s good for the ego. “I do like seeing my name out there on Google Scholar,” he laughs.

In between his research, training and work, he’s trying to make the most of his time in New Zealand. “I’ve seen most of the North Island, and hoping to find time to see the South Island before the next step of my career.”

Find out more about Dustin’s research via the SPRINZ website:

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Heather is our Communications Manager here at AUT Millennium. With a BA/BCom from the University of Auckland and postgraduate qualification in communications, Heather honed her copywriting skills in the recruitment and tertiary industries. As a storyteller, she loves to share the inspirational stories of the AUT Millennium community. Her mood will greatly depend on the current (mis)fortunes of the BlackCaps and Warriors. [email protected]