When pathways are clear, all is well. The race ends as expected, the heart keeps pumping, a healthy baby is born. But when the environment changes — weather, exercise, emotions, or anything else . . . . Well, that's when life gets interesting.
As she monitors the colony of expectant animals in her laboratory, the physiologist's curiosity is engaged by one animal's circulatory response to exercise: blood flow to the uterus drops. Questions arise: How is uterine circulation controlled during exercise? What roles do the brain, nerves, and blood vessels play in this response? Is control of uterine blood flow different in pregnancy?
Clearly, physical activity benefits women with healthy pregnancies. What is not as clear is the impact of physical activity on pregnancy outcomes when the pregnancy is complicated by hypertension, pre-eclampsia, or intrauterine growth restriction — states where oxygen and nutrient delivery to the fetus are lower than normal, even at rest. "A good understanding of what drives normal physiology helps us target mechanisms that might be responsible for abnormal function in disease states," says Kathleen O'Hagan. "In other words, we start by asking, 'What is normal, and what is not?' The next step is to ask, 'How are these mechanisms changed, and do they contribute to problems with uterine blood flow during exercise in pregnancies complicated by hypertension or other disease states?' That's what physiologists do: try and solve problems related to how the body functions at rest and in response to change, such as the stress of disease, environment, or activity."
Kathleen O'Hagan, professor and chair of physiology in the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine (CCOM) at Midwestern University, holds a lifelong fascination with physiological processes and their functions in health and disease. Solving problems and helping others find possible options are her passions. "We're preparing professionals for a lifetime of clinical work — a science-based medical practice — and we want to be sure they know how to apply the knowledge they learn. After all, it's just like educating patients, which is what good healthcare practitioners should do."
That's what physiologists do: try and solve problems related to how the body functions at rest and in response to change, such as the stress of disease, environment, or activity."
— Kathleen O'Hagan, Ph.D., Downers Grove
Each year, MWU's department of physiology hosts as many as six master's-level graduate students and up to five second-year osteopathic medical students in research laboratories that include an AAALAC-accredited animal facility. "Midwestern's commitment to scholarly research in the basic sciences helps faculty maintain dual roles as teachers and scientists," says O'Hagan. "For example, a select group of second-year medical students are awarded a stipend through the AZCOM and CCOM Summer Fellowship programs, which allows them to engage in a research project with an MWU faculty member in the summer between their first and second years. Many of these students present their research findings at the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) annual research conference. The quality of their work is high, which is reflected by numerous awards garnered over the years by our students in the AOA student poster competitions."
What O'Hagan truly enjoys is seeing how students learn and grow in class. She teaches in the team-taught physiology courses for osteopathic medicine, pharmacy, and health sciences students, and serves as the primary lecturer for the exercise physiology course for physical therapy students. In her elective course on physiology teaching, high-scoring osteopathic medicine students act as small-group facilitators for health sciences students, trying their hand at teaching. "You'll do well in teaching or in educating patients if you're a social person, someone who enjoys sharing your knowledge and helping others," says O'Hagan. "It's important to learn to listen to your patients, too. That's where you get the most valuable information," she says. "To make your assessment and formulate a treatment plan, you have to be able to integrate information and apply it to each situation. The process of teaching helps you develop those skills."
During her 15 years at Midwestern University, O'Hagan has been amazed by the expansion and growth, including new programs and a new campus. "We have high quality programs with high quality students, and we continue to serve the greater good by expanding services for healthcare in many ways. The mission of Midwestern University faculty is to prepare students for a lifetime of science-based medical practice. We emphasize knowledge that can be applied to patient care."
O'Hagan also feels the close-knit, collaborative, non-competitive environment at Midwestern University models the osteopathic profession. "Most of our students live on campus and develop friendships that can last a lifetime. As faculty, we also mentor and encourage each other and work together on everything from committees to recreational activities. It's fun to come to work."
Kathleen P. O'Hagan, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Physiology at Midwestern University's Downers Grove (IL) Campus. In addition to teaching and research, she publishes in peer-reviewed journals, has received extramural grant support, and serves as a peer reviewer for the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners.