“So, let me get this right, your research centers on the idea that each of our bodies follow a kind of internal clock?”
The scientist smiles.
“The biological clock is a system that exists within almost every living organism,” she confirms.
The internal clock programs and controls the circadian —or daily —rhythms within the body.
“It makes sure our cells are doing exactly what they should be doing at the right time of day,” she says.
That means right at this moment, your body is communicating what it wants you to do within its 24-hour cycle.
Maybe it’s getting a surge of adrenaline to wake up, or an increase in blood pressure, or a release of melatonin to go to sleep.
Are you listening?
Dr. Jennifer Evans, assistant professor of biomedical sciences at Marquette University, has dedicated her life’s work to understanding daily cycles and rhythms in our body, and how over 20,000 cells in the brain communicate to make sure each part is doing the correct thing at the correct time—day or night.
“I think of this work as a biological puzzle,” Dr. Evans says. “I have always wanted to figure out how this clock system works.”
What motivates Dr. Evans to continue? Two reasons.
“The first reason continues to be this overall desire to solve this important biological puzzle,” she says. “Second, it is incredibly important for us to understand how the clock functions because this will overall benefit the field and society as a whole.”
Her initial interest in circadian rhythms sparked after she was exposed to a laboratory setting by a favorite professor at the University of California-San Diego.
She was a psychology major at the time and had planned to pursue a master’s degree and become a psychiatrist. But she found her interest shift to neurobiology after experiencing work in a lab, engaging in research and being introduced to biology.
In fact, her senior thesis centered around how pregnant women might communicate time to their unborn offspring.
“From then on, I wanted to look deeper into how the clock ticks and how it functionally changes as the environment around us changes,” she says.
In past research, Dr. Evans looked at how our circadian rhythms adjust to environmental challenges to anticipate and react to changes, such as jet lag or sleep disturbances.
For example, the effects of a six-hour flight can take our bodies up to six days just to recover and adjust to the new time zone.
“Jet lag is a common issue to address when studying the biological clock,” Dr. Evans says. “It occurs when the clock does not adjust rapidly to the changing environment.”
People often think circadian rhythms relate to sunlight and the light-dark cycle. They do — but that’s only part of the story.
In her doctorate work, she discovered that moonlight can also affect the biological clock, especially related to issues such as jet lag.
Her findings? Exposure to low levels of moonlight throughout the night results in a quicker and easier adjustment to new time zones.
So next time you plan your travel, you may want to pay attention to the phases of the moon.
What’s next for Dr. Evans?
She pointed out that the most important part of her research has been studying how cells within the brain coordinate. The communication among these clocks ensures that each part of the body is doing the right thing at the exact right time of day.
The large, old clock located on the wall across from her desk ticks away in the background. She stands up and approaches it slowly.
“There are certain things that our bodies and cells need to be doing at specific times of day,” said Dr. Evans, citing waking, eating and other bodily functions.
“The main focus of my research is to understand how clock cells talk to one another and how the master clock in the brain communicates with other parts of the brain and body. ”
As a scientist, she wants to look beyond the hands of the clock to understand how the gears work together and communicate with one another.
Can you hear them?
Read more of Dr. Evan’s research on how nighttime lighting conditions can speed recovery from jet lag.
This article was researched and reported by Katie Miller, intern for the Office of Marketing and Communication at Marquette, and graduate student studying Communication. Follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.