Transitioning to Birmingham

Wow, where to begin? First of all, I am very excited to help the next class get acclimated to Birmingham, and I am honestly so happy with my choice to attend UAB. So, I guess I should start by describing where I am moving from. My wife and I moved to Birmingham from Davis, California. I attended graduate school at UC Davis for a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering. I think it is fair to say that, if I can move from California and make a successful transition to Birmingham, almost anyone can. A few notable differences have become all too apparent, however, of which I will make brief mention.

The Weather:

First, all incoming students move to Birmingham in early June, which I could reasonably argue is the most difficult time to move into the Southeastern region of the country. It is humid. It is hot. If you don’t find yourself soaked from the crazy storms that flash through the city, you will drip with your own perspiration. If you’re like me, you will learn how to deal with sweating (or higher electric bills). Also relevant to the weather is the nature of its predictability; basically, it isn’t. Contrary to California, which does not really need a weather channel, you may be enjoying a bike ride in beautiful sunshine, only to be soaked by a flash rain/hail storm literally within minutes. Then, it’s gone just as fast as it came, and you are surrounded by beautiful sunshine (and 100% humidity). The heat/humidity has made running here tricky, and I have developed a few strategies to continue my training. First, run as early as possible. I start my run between 5:45 and 6:15 AM (depending on the duration), so that I can finish before 8 AM. Running after 8 AM is a bad idea. However, the rec center (gym) at UAB is phenomenal, and free to graduate and medical students (i.e. all 8 years of our program). If you like working out in the evenings, do it there.

It may sound like I have nothing but negatives, but the summer weather is pretty much the only negative (except for the normal transition to a strange place). Unlike the Northeastern states, who enjoy only the 3 months of summer as their prime weather, I have heard that the other 9 months of the year are great for Birmingham. In less than a month, the leaves will start turning. In a few more months, we will have some crisp cooler air (without the snow storms), followed by lush, green spring time.


Other than the weather, my wife and I have adjusted very well to finding community in Birmingham, the most important of which is the MSTP community itself. From the beginning, we entering students banded together very quickly and made weekly dinners a set-in-stone tradition. It has been fun getting to know everyone so well, and go through the various natural phases of our relationship with Birmingham (excitement, resentment, apathy, adoption, etc…). One of the highlights of this summer was the MSTP retreat, which I’m sure will get its own blog entry soon enough. Suffice to say, DO NOT MISS IT! By the end of the trip, you will establish some solid friendships.

Retro Run 5k
Mark Pepin and Stephen Gragg (first-year MSTP), after the Retro Run 5k.


The Research:

Also important to my summer experience was rotating through a lab. I chose to do my first rotation in Dr. Marcas Bamman’s laboratory, in which some really cool exercise rehabilitation research is being performed. I had the opportunity to grow human satellite cells (or skeletal muscle stem cells), and compare the epigenetics between those of Spinal Cord Injured (SCI) and able-bodied controls. My objective has been to assess the response of the two groups to either mechanical stimulation (cyclic stretch) or hormonal stimulation (insulin). The outcome will give some insight into what the potential therapies might be for individuals with SCI who have a condition directly associated with low muscle mass (type-II diabetes, cancer, etc…). I am fairly confident that I will join this lab if a spot is available in two years. The environment of the lab was unlike any lab I have worked in. The current graduate students are incredibly nice and helpful, and will go out of their way to get my project going. Dr. Bamman is a very approachable person, as well as very knowledgeable in the field of muscle physiology (just look at some of his papers and you’ll get the idea). Anyway, I have heard similar stories from the other incoming MSTP students, so overall the summer has been very productive.




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