NATICK, Mass. (Jan. 7, 2016) — When it comes to his station in life, Kevin O’Fallon, Ph.D., has raised the bar – both literally and figuratively. In 2002, O’Fallon was a 22-year-old Air Force aircraft mechanic maintaining A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthogs.” Today, he can still recall lying on a flightline in Kuwait one night, looking up at the stars and wondering what to do with his life.
“‘How did I get here,'” O’Fallon remembered asking himself. “I realized, it’s time to figure it out.”
Fourteen years later, the Operation Enduring Freedom veteran has traded his grease-stained coveralls for a lab coat. Instead of the flightline, he now reports for work at the Integrative Physiology Laboratory in the Combat Feeding Directorate of the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, where he does research to determine whether proper nutrition can help accelerate healing in skeletal muscle after exercise or injury.
“This is absolutely my dream job,” said O’Fallon, 36. “I’ve worked really hard to get here. It’s my intent to stay here.”
His interest in the human body and how it functions dates back to his days of working out with his father, Tim O’Fallon, a former bodybuilder and Navy aircraft mechanic.
“My dad did an incredible job instilling in me that pursuit for maximum effort,” O’Fallon said, “and really helping me become in tune with my body and being in it, and learning that it’s so much more resilient than we give ourselves credit for being.
“We’re not a family of quitters. There are times in your life when you kind of have to gut it out, and nobody’s going to solve it but you.”
O’Fallon has always approached athletics in the same relentless manner in which he pursued his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in exercise science/kinesiology from the University of Massachusetts. Dovetailing nicely with his professional work, the former wrestler, football player, triathlete and competitive cyclist took up Olympic-style weightlifting at age 31.
“Weightlifting is such a metaphor for life,” O’Fallon said.
Returning to his native Reno, Nevada, early last month, the 5-foot-6-inch, 187-pound O’Fallon set a pair of personal records – in the clean and jerk and total weight – in the American Open, his first national-level competition. He accomplished those feats in front of family members.
“What a special experience that was,” O’Fallon said. “It was just so cool to be able to do that in my hometown.”
Now he’s back working with the world-class coaches and fellow athletes at a Norwood (Massachusetts) Training Center as he prepares to compete in the 2016 National Masters Weightlifting Championships March 31-April 3 in Savannah, Georgia.
“It’s been a really good relationship where I’ve learned so much from them with the weightlifting,” O’Fallon said, “and they’ve learned just as much from me on the … nutrition and muscle performance recovery aspect.
“I’ve learned to use myself as a test bed for anything that, through my science, I hypothesize may offer a performance or recovery benefit.”
So his work as a research physiologist at Natick may one day affect the way he fuels his body in training and competitions.
“We’re doing some really cool work in the lab right now to try to put together this broader continuum of muscle injury and then the ensuing regenerative and inflammatory responses and how we can influence wound healing or muscle recovery with nutrition,” said O’Fallon, adding that chemicals from fruits and vegetables were the focus. “We’re very interested in finding non-pharmacological ways, through food, to accelerate muscle recovery from exercise.
“We’re essentially taking incredibly sophisticated systems of the body, and we’re isolating them out, and we’re asking very fundamental questions about how they work, how they respond to environmental stressors, and how we can influence them, and that’s really the basis for all the future work that we’re going to do.”
As he looks ahead to that future research, he sometimes reaches into his past for a few tools.
“I learned how to apply the troubleshooting abilities that I gained as an aircraft mechanic to my science,” O’Fallon said, “and how to apply my science to my understanding of life and the way we work as humans and the way just life on this planet seems to work.”
O’Fallon said he hopes his research will help future warfighters return home healthier and recover faster when they are injured.
“I pinch myself a lot,” O’Fallon said. “I cannot believe that I’m doing this and that we’re doing this.”