Today’s conversation is with Dr Danny Longman, Lecturer in Physiology at Loughborough University. Danny graduated from the University of Cambridge with a BA (Hons) in Natural Sciences, as well as a MPhil and PhD in Human Evolution. Before joining Loughborough University in 2019, he also held a position as a Post-Doctoral researcher at Cambridge. His research considers human adaptability and function in the context of human evolution, and has recently helped defined the sub-discipline of Human Athletic Palaeobiology. This involves using contemporary sports as a model to study evolutionary theory. Away from work, Danny is a keen sportsman, with a passion for ultra-endurance sport, exploration and travel.
What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?
I’m a biological anthropologist and my research focusses primarily on human adaptability and function. I’m particularly interested in understanding our capacity for adaptation, and the underlying biological mechanisms that make this possible.
The majority of my work has investigated our physiological response to energetic stress, using life history theory as a theoretical framework. With my collaborators and previous supervisors Jay Stock (now Professor at the University of Western Ontario, Canada) and Jonathan Wells (UCL), I have developed a model recruiting ultra-endurance athletes to study this. I really enjoy this work, as it combines my passion for evolution with my alternate, non-academic life as an ultra-endurance athlete.
What originally drew you towards human evolution and, in particular, extreme environment physiology?
I ‘discovered’ human evolution as a Masters student, and was immediately attracted to the holistic physiological perspective of evolutionary theory. I loved how areas such as life history theory explained the world around me, and just seemed to make sense.
That year, I was part of a team attempting to row across the Atlantic Ocean. I spoke to my incredible supervisors Jay Stock and Jonathan Wells about this, and they encouraged me to design a project that would collect data during the row itself. It was this row that set my research trajectory for the next 10 years (and counting).
For the first 3 days the intense seasickness, coupled with the intense 2-hours-on 2-hours-off shift pattern, meant that I didn’t manage to eat or sleep at all. Constantly being sick, I was growing weaker at the oars, and I couldn’t even comprehend the fact that we still had another 30 days or so to go. Then, somethings began to change. I could take a bite of a mars bar without being sick, I drank a little, I slept for 20 minutes. This then became a full mars bar, a litre of electrolyte drink, a 60-minute sleep. By day 6 I was able to drink freely and accumulate 3 hours of sleep and eat a couple of rehydrated meals each day. My strength came back, and I could think clearly again. I was still losing weight, but something had happened in my body to reallocate the little energy I was consuming and allow me to adapt to the pressures of my new environment. I came back from this trip feeling amazed by the body’s incredible ability to adapt, and said to Jay that we’ve gotta study this! I was lucky enough to be able to do just that going forward.
Why did you want to do a PhD?
Two things really. I came back from the row full of excitement to learn more about humans’ adaptive capabilities. A PhD was the next logical step in this regard. The thing that really clinched it for me was the opportunity to work with Jay and Jonathan again. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and I was excited to spend at least another couple of years working with and learning from them.
Tell us a bit about your PhD research. What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?
I really enjoyed my PhD. Although my subject area was in quite different from the rest of the department at Cambridge, Jay’s research group provided a friendly and supportive environment where I could discuss new ideas, and receive constructive feedback. I enjoyed the wider experience of the PhD too. I was part of the University’s rowing programme, and while this did take up far too much time (about 30 hours a week), it totally immersive and was a great break from my studies.
What current projects are you working on?
Currently, I have two strands of work on the go. Firstly, I’m continuing to study resource allocation during energetic stress by analysing data collected during my Post-Doc on Jay Stock’s ADaPt Project. We collected this data at a range of multiday ultramarathons and ocean rows around the world, and I can’t wait to see what the results tell us. Related to this, I’m also developing a project with my PhD student, Yvanna, looking at the interplay between life history theory and nutritional ecology.
In addition to this, I’m developing a project considering the effect of natural and urban environments on human physiology. There’s a growing body of knowledge suggesting that natural environments such as forests promote mental and physical wellbeing when compared to built-up areas such as cities. I’m finding this area fascinating, and the rationale seems to be strongly linked to the natural ancestral environments in which we evolved as a species.
What do you hope to work on in the future? Has the COVID19 pandemic affected your plans?
I’ve been very fortunate in that COVID19 hasn’t affected my plans too much. I’m currently in a writing phase, having collected a lot of data during my Post-Doc. I have had to cancel a couple of fun trips to meet collaborators in Japan, as well as a conference in LA, but on the whole I’ve been incredibly lucky compared to a lot of colleagues.
Going forward, I’m hoping to continue my work using ultra-endurance sport to study resource allocation and life history theory, potentially competing in a few more events myself. I’d also like to continue to develop my new interests in nutritional ecology, and in understanding the mechanisms underpinning the health benefits of natural environments.
What publication or project are you most proud of and why?
In 2020 I published a paper in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology with Jay Stock and Jonathan Wells entitled Human athletic palaeobiology; using sport as a model to investigate human evolutionary adaptation. In this paper, we define a new sub-discipline using sport as a conceptual framework to improve our understanding of our evolutionary trajectory, our capacity for adaptation, and the underlying biological mechanisms. There has been a growing body of work in this area by a number of researchers, and I was really happy to take on the challenge of writing a paper which in many ways was a summation of my work since Masters level.
Does your research have any implications outside of academia?
In the years to come, I’d hope that my work with resource allocation and energetic stress will contribute to knowledge underpinning advances in areas such as evolutionary public health. More immediately, a byproduct of my research is a better understanding of the stresses athletes face when competing in ultra-endurance events. This could help athletes and coaches better prepare for the immense strain that the events will place on their physiology.
What advice would you give to someone interested in studying human evolution?
I think a really important piece of advice would be to take your time in finding the right supervisor. I was incredibly lucky in meeting Jay Stock and Jonathan Wells when I did. They provided me with the skills I needed to follow my interests in a rigorous way, gave me the space to make my own mistakes and fuelled my passion for evolution. I’d suggest students interested in a PhD speak to as many people as possible, and try to find the right match.
From a wider perspective, I’d advise people to take opportunities that pop up. You never know where a chance conversation or project might lead.
If you had a time machine, how far would you ask to go back, where would you go, and what would you want to see?
Haha good question! If they would have me, I’d love to go back and live with a Neanderthal group. Although I’ve never directly worked with Neanderthal fossils, I find their culture fascinating. It would be great to see just how similar we are.