Meath GAA captain discovers science and sport have the right chemistry

23 Aug 2016

PhD student Donal Keogan playing for Meath GAA senior football team. Photo via Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Donal Keogan writes about his double life as a PhD student in medicinal chemistry and captain of the Meath GAA senior football team.

How do you manage to do a PhD and play inter-county football?

It is a good question and one I am often asked as captain of the Meath senior football team and an Irish Research Council-funded PhD student at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.

Good time management is essential, of course. But, for me, it is all about trying to achieve balance.

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Football and science are two important aspects of my life but I can escape from one through the other.

The minute I pull on my boots and gloves and step onto that football field, my sole concentration is on playing football to the best of my ability. The same goes for when I am in the lab and I put on the lab coat and safety glasses; I find it easy to forget about football.

Focus and motivation

I am about to start the final year of my PhD and I expect it to be the most demanding year of my studies.

My research in medicinal chemistry looks to find a new means of treatment of stomach ulcers. Stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium known as Helicobacter pylori (H pylori). It is the strongest known risk factor associated with gastric cancer.

The continuing rise in antibiotic resistance has caused a marked decrease in the efficacy of standard first-line treatments for H pylori. Our project aims to develop novel drugs for the treatment of H pylori infection.

Given the challenging year ahead, it would be easy for me to get bogged down in my work and forget about life. For me, sport – and, in particular, GAA – helps me to maintain my focus and motivation.

I dreamed of being an inter-county footballer since I was a child playing with my local club, Rathkenny. I grew up supporting very successful Meath teams and hoped one day I could emulate their success.

Science and sport: A great match

Having something outside my work is crucial in preserving a healthy body and mind. As many of us are hopefully aware, studies have shown that moderate exercise can be beneficial to your health, both physical and mental. Given the alarming threats to public health today, including mental health problems and widespread obesity, I think it is important that all people partake in exercise, no matter how busy you are in your daily life, for your own wellbeing.

Science and the GAA also complement each other on the field of play. Teams are investing increasing amounts of time and money into researching different areas of the game. This is not only in GAA sports, but also in professional sport where research – much of which is funded by the Irish Research Council – aims to push the boundaries of science and develop or discover new techniques and methods to give teams an edge.

Nowadays, every county has nutritionists, sport psychologists, recovery specialists, leading medical teams and sports therapists who are all experts in their field of science.

We have had Dr Crionna Tobin, performance nutritionist, on board over the past couple of years to help with the dietary aspect of our game, which alone can provide huge benefits to your on-the-field display. We have also worked closely with Eugene Ivers who is conducting a PhD in recovery techniques and finding out the most effective means to have you back on the field the next day and in the best possible shape.

Science and sport are more than just my hobbies; they are my passion. I hope to be successful in both disciplines in the future.

By Donal Keogan

An Irish Research Council (IRC) postgraduate scholar, Donal Keogan is kept very busy as both a PhD student in medicinal chemistry at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and captain of the Meath senior Gaelic football team. His writing comes as part of the IRC’s August theme for the #LoveIrishResearch campaign, Research & Sport: A Great Match.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Irish Research Council blog