Research partnerships transcend UND-NDSU sports rivalry

Grant Tomkinson (left). professor in the Department of Education, Health & Behavior Studies at UND, and Ryan McGrath, assistant professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences at North Dakota State University, have collaborated for years on a variety of sports medicine and kinesiology research projects. Photo of Ryan McGrath is courtesy of NDSU.
Grant Tomkinson (left), professor in the Department of Education, Health & Behavior Studies at UND, and Ryan McGrath, assistant professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences at North Dakota State University, have collaborated for years on a variety of sports medicine and kinesiology research projects. Photo of Ryan McGrath is courtesy of NDSU.

There’s a fair chance that even as UND and North Dakota State University sports teams were competing on the playing field, faculty members in kinesiology at the two schools were conversing on the phone, talking about their latest collaborative project.

Those projects now number in the double digits, and the results have been published in some of sports medicine’s top journals. This makes the cooperation between Grant Tomkinson at UND and Ryan McGrath at NDSU one of the more notable inter-institutional efforts in the Valley, and an example of how such partnerships can add to the good of the state.

“We pay so much attention to sports rivalries that we forget that UND and NDSU together are about the size of an average research university in our region,” said Jim Deal, co-interim dean and professor, NDSU College of Human Sciences and Education.

“And you know, we’re all running with limited resources. We’re all looking for ways to improve.

“So when you’ve got somebody who’s young and up-and-coming like Ryan, and they have the chance to work with somebody who’s established like Grant, that’s just a win-win for everybody. It’s a great thing for the people of North Dakota, and it’s a great thing for the faculty and students of our two institutions.”

Deal’s fellow co-interim dean, NDSU Professor Jill Nelson, agreed. “We have such high-quality faculty at both institutions,” Nelson noted.

“In addition, the way the two universities are structured, there’s great opportunity for collaboration. We have some overlapping programs that give us good numbers in critical areas; plus, each institution also has ‘niche’ areas where faculty members can pair up in complementary ways.”

And as Cindy Juntunen, dean of the College of Education, Health & Behavior at UND, put it, “When faculty at UND and NDSU work together, there is an exponential increase in both the impact of their work and the opportunity to better serve the state.

“With their expertise in physical strength and health, particularly among older adults, Dr. Tomkinson and Dr. McGrath highlight how collaborations such as this can improve the lives of citizens in North Dakota.”

Research in service to the state

McGrath and Tomkinson’s two most recent journal articles prove Juntunen’s point. One study – conducted with eight other co-authors – in the journal Geriatrics looks at how a telehealth intervention changed activity profiles in older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The results suggest that telehealth interventions hold promise for improving health-related behaviors in older adults, said Tomkinson, professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Public Health Education at UND.

“And especially in rural North Dakota, that matters,” Tomkinson said.

“Post-COVID, this is a new environment that we’re living in. We’ve got to be much more flexible if we’re going to improve the future health of older adults.

“What we’re saying is, let’s take advantage of advancing technology, such as telehealth. Let’s try to use this as a delivery mechanism, especially in areas where it’s hard to get to a gym, because it’s potentially a positive way of boosting the physical activity of older adults.”

Dynamic dynamometers

The other study – which appears in JAMDA, the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine – lists McGrath and Tomkinson as lead authors, along with six other co-authors. It takes a fresh look at a tried-and-true method of quickly assessing overall fitness and health: handgrip strength.

As measured by a handheld instrument called a dynamometer, handgrip strength is a powerful marker, said McGrath, assistant professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences at NDSU.

“Many studies have found that low handgrip strength is associated with a variety of really poor health outcomes, including disability and dementia in adults,” McGrath said. “But traditionally, we’ve only studied maximum handgrip strength, and that represents only a single aspect of muscle function.”

Newer digital dynamometers let researchers measure other muscle-function indicators, such as how quickly the subject can squeeze the instrument and how long the squeeze can be maintained. “In our study, we suggest that assessing these additional aspects of muscle function may provide a more complete picture of aging, and may help us better predict – and prevent or delay – age-related disease and disability,” McGrath said.

Further, those improvements (when they’re identified) likely will be available to clinicians at low cost, because digital dynamometers are not expensive or hard-to-use tools. That, too, is important in rural North Dakota, he said.

Cold call

The researchers first met two or three years ago, when Tomkinson invited McGrath via email to work on a project. “We were tracking trends in various fitness measures, including handgrip strength, and Ryan’s name came up,” Tomkinson said.

“He’d had an excellent systematic review that really looked at handgrip strength, insofar as it’s related to helping older adults. So it was just a cold call.”

The results – 10 or 11 or more papers in the few years since then – have been terrific, Tomkinson said. “It has been a really good collaboration, and Ryan is an outstanding researcher. He has great initiative, he’s a self-starter, and he brings in people and ideas from across the country, all with the goal of improving human health.”

McGrath is just as effusive. “Before I earned my doctorate at the University of Idaho, I got my master’s degree at UND,” he said. “I love the school, I love Grand Forks. And being back in North Dakota is something I take a lot of pride in; I really want to do well for the citizens of our state.

“So I was highly enthusiastic to receive Grant’s email,” McGrath said. “I’m so happy that he took the initiative and made that initial step; and since then, he has been one of my top collaborators. We text, we Skype, we’ve worked together on a ton of projects. He has been one of my most trusted mentors.

“So what started out with a simple email has turned into a really beautiful collaboration.”

The Great Plains IDeA-CTR

One other key factor has helped catalyze this collaboration, and it’s a funding source set up for exactly that purpose: the Great Plains IDeA network for Clinical and Translational Research (CTR).

Operated out of the University of Nebraska in partnership with eight other institutions, including UND and NDSU, the Great Plains IDeA-CTR offers grants for “innovative partnerships” that foster “cutting-edge collaborative research,” all with an eye to improving life and health on the Great Plains, the project’s website notes.

And if you think that describes the UND and NDSU kinesiologists’ work to a T, you’d be right, McGrath said. “The Great Plains network is a wonderful mechanism to conduct meaningful research, network with investigators across the region and make a difference,” he said. “I would 100 percent recommend it, and I’m extremely thankful to have received its award.”