One of the more daring moments for Thessa Hilgenkamp happened recently when she moved more than 5,300 miles away from home to work at an ambitious university with a can-do attitude. Now she’s preparing to continue her research focused on cardiovascular physiology among people with neurological limitations. But if you want to present Thessa with a challenge today, ask her to describe the taste of an “oliebol.”
Tell us about a time in your life you were daring.
Five years ago, I was awarded the European Union Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship, which allowed me for one year to develop new techniques in the United States. I chose to leave the Netherlands and embark on this new academic adventure, which turned out to be life-changing in every way imaginable.
Why did you choose to work at UNLV?
I had spoken with different UNLV faculty members at various conferences and they all praised the university’s ambitiousness and can-do attitude. When a position opened up within the physical therapy department and I was invited to campus, the ambitions and attitude were tangible in every conversation and interaction.
On top of that, the fit with the department was extremely good. The team has great expertise in neurocognitive aspects of movement and rehabilitation, as well as strong collaborations with the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and other community partners. And, I was really looking forward to working with physical therapy students.
Tell us about your research.
My research examines how population-specific differences in cardiovascular physiology and autonomic regulation impact fitness and health among individuals with neurological limitations. My first NIH-funded project at UNLV will focus on individuals with Down Syndrome and investigate whether muscles are supplied with the right amount of oxygen to perform activities, and whether exercise will change the regulation of heart rate and blood pressure and blood flow to the muscles. This may further explain the fatigue and exercise intolerance experienced by individuals with Down Syndrome, and provide us with directions for adapted guidelines.
What inspired you to pursue your line of research?
My former master’s advisor asked me to volunteer as a research assistant for a study about circadian rhythm and Alzheimer’s disease among individuals with Down Syndrome. I was tasked with testing the physical fitness of the participants. What struck me was the participants’ honest communication and their excitement for new experiences. As I became more involved, I realized how large the knowledge gaps are about the most basic aspects of lifestyle and health within this population, and I became excited by the prospect of helping to fill in some of those gaps.
What is the biggest misconception you encountered about your research?
The biggest misconception is that individuals with Down Syndrome are lazy and not motivated to exercise. Few people know that they have an altered physiology that impacts their ability to exercise.
Tell me about an a-ha moment in your career.
My Ph.D. project was part of a large epidemiological study about healthy ageing among adults with intellectual disabilities. We collaborated with health care providers in every step of that process, including formulating the research questions, funding, involvement of health professionals in the data collection, and implementation of results. Because of the joint effort, the project became a tremendous success. I realized that designing impactful and meaningful research is critical for advancement in any area. I am looking forward to building a network of stakeholders in the Las Vegas area so I can add their perspectives to my research.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t try to manage everything; the most beautiful opportunities often arise when you let go.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I love to dance salsa and kizomba [a dance that originated in Angola].
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Growing up, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved anything animal-related.
What was the last book you couldn’t put down, show you binge-watched, or band you kept on replay?
Currently, I am listening to Burnaboy. His newest album showcases the diversity of Afrobeats and always puts me in a good mood.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Sandwiches with peanut butter and chocolate sprinkles.
My ideal summer vacation...
Has a little bit of everything: Nice weather with some outdoor activities, some dancing, some exploring of a culturally interesting area, and relaxing at a beautiful beach or pool. That being the ideal, any combination of these items would contribute to an amazing summer vacation.
Favorite holiday food or unique tradition for your family.
Being Dutch, I love the “oliebollen” that we eat during the days leading up to New Year’s Eve. I would love to try to explain this Dutch doughnut ball, but no description can do justice to the amazing taste of a freshly baked “oliebol.”