‘When optimising female performance, period does not mean full stop’

23 Oct 2019

Úna Newell, managing editor, Orreco. Image: Orreco

Úna Newell of Orecco discusses her unique experience of going from an academic background in history to working in a sports data science company.

Dr Úna Newell is an Irish Research Council awardee who has a PhD in history from University College Dublin and published her first peer-reviewed book with Manchester University Press in 2015.

In that same year, she joined the sports and data science company Orreco, where she is now its managing editor.

‘One of the biggest challenges was stepping into the commercial world. It is often assumed that students of history will become lecturers or teachers’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As an undergraduate at NUI Galway, or UCG as it was known as then, I was very fortunate to be taught by outstanding lecturers like Prof Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh in the history department and Prof Hubert McDermott in the English department.

I was always interested in research and the excitement and challenge that comes with working on something new, something undiscovered, and trying to piece it all together. But what I was completely struck by at the time was the way they presented their information and delivered their content – this sense of stepping on stage and bringing their audience along with them every week.

Later, at UCD, I had an opportunity to work with another exceptional historian who challenged me to master the skills of a professional historian. These skills help us analyse a wide variety of sources, interrogate the evidence, distil the information and communicate it in a clear, effective and unambiguous manner that is backed up with reliable evidence. As we all know, just because it is published, does not mean it is true!

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

When talking about the work I do now, the first question that often comes up is how is someone with a background in history working for a sports and data science company? The simple answer is that Orreco is an incredibly multi-disciplinary company. It is also a company whose heartbeat is peer-reviewed research. Our team includes 15 PhDs and together our scientists have published more than 300 papers.

We have a great research partnership with the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway and with scientists in St Mary’s University in Twickenham and the University of Houston in Texas. It is this grounding in research and best practice that drives the development of our elite athlete products and services.

At Orreco, we analyse biomarkers in the blood that relate to performance, calculating an athlete’s individual reference range (which adapts and updates as more player data is added over time) and providing customised training and nutrition strategies to accelerate recovery and optimise performance.

Capturing, analysing and interpreting the data is a fundamental part of what we do, but how we curate and communicate our findings back to our clients is also crucial. A large part of my role at Orreco involves analysing and editing the content we produce to ensure the right message is delivered to the right audience in a way that is understandable and actionable, whether it be to a coach, a member of the high-performance team or the athletes themselves.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The content we write and the systems we use to manage and deliver this information come in many forms including digital, print, software platforms, recommender systems and player apps. As you can imagine, this involves a lot of collaboration with our different subject experts and also our creative director and design team to ensure we deliver world-class content to the teams and athletes we are privileged to work with.

The dissemination of information is something I am passionate about, but it is vital that the integrity of the science that drives our insights and powers our content engine and AI tools is protected at all times.

This is where my formal training in analysing content and ensuring our insights are accurate, easily absorbed and backed up by reliable evidence is so important. The fact that I have a huge interest in sport is a bonus!

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

One of the things that excites me most about working with Orreco is our team’s ability to go from peer-reviewed science to applied products. It is testimony to the continuous investment Orreco puts into R&D.

For example, as part of our biomarker analytics service, our team developed a point-of-care test to measure an athlete’s oxidative stress and inflammation levels from a quick pinprick blood sample.

The test gives an immediate indication of how an athlete is adapting to their training load. It has proved highly successful for reducing illness and injury risk and protecting against overreaching and under-recovery. It is trusted by teams and athletes competing at the highest level of sport including the NBA, NFL, NHL, PGA, the Olympics, Formula One and the English Premier League.

This year, Orreco became the official bio-analytics provider to the National Basketball Players Association.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field and are there any common misconceptions?

For me, one of the biggest challenges was stepping into the commercial world. It is often assumed that students of history will become lecturers or teachers. And this becomes even more pronounced at a postgraduate level when we begin to narrow our focus into a particular area of specialisation.

However, experience has taught me that the communication, evaluation and analytical skills our discipline teaches us are highly valued in the commercial world. The challenge is being able to articulate this to industry executives using language that they can relate to and are familiar with.

I was lucky to have two business mentors who gave up their time to discuss this career transition with me. The conversations were frank and quite brutal at times. What I found was that they didn’t care about my publication record, teaching record, successful grant applications or any of the things we are naturally judged on in academia.

What they did care about were the skills I had acquired to achieve these things and how these skills would be successfully applied in their environment. When it comes to big business, the nuanced critical methods deployed by the humanities matter. The challenge is making sure these skills do not get lost in translation.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

At Orreco, one of the key areas our team is focusing on is the female athlete and the impact of the menstrual cycle on performance and athlete wellness.

As part of our female athlete programme, we recently developed FitrWoman, a free app to help all active women track their period and tailor their training and nutrition to their menstrual cycle so they know when to push harder, when to prioritise recovery and how to maximise every training session.

We have also introduced FitrCoach, an education and monitoring platform for coaches and their support teams to understand the different stages of the menstrual cycle and help redefine the way female athletes train to optimise performance.

An example of this in practice is the work we did with Dawn Scott, the high-performance coach of the US Women’s national soccer team, in the lead up to the FIFA Women’s World Cup in July.

I think the challenge in this area is to move female physiology mainstream and to take what we are learning at an elite level and make it available to all sportswomen, no matter what their sport and no matter what their level, so they can work with their natural physiology, not against it. When it comes to optimising female performance, period does not mean full stop.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.