Interview with a Chemistry Graduate Student: Erica Frankel

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Interview with a Chemistry Graduate Student: Erica Frankel

Grad Student Erica Frankel

20 September 2016

Erica Frankel is a 5th year graduate student, co-advised by Phil Bevilacqua and Chris Keating, who is busy investigating fundamental questions that span the earliest chemistry on Earth to the most modern mechanisms in molecular biology.  RNA has been found to carry out a broad range of functions in cells, from translating genetic information into proteins to regulating the activity of genes, etc. Her research has the implication for differentiating why RNA has evolved as it has from a prebiotic molecule to an indispensible component of all organisms.  Erica took some time out of her day to talk about one of her passions outside the lab (besides hanging out with her not-so-fitness progressive dog, Homer): being a fitness instructor at Fitology in State College, PA.

Why don't you start off by giving a quick introduction to Fitology and what you do there?

Fitology is a local fitness studio located in State College, where their slogan is “Inspired group fitness. Powered by science”.  Simply put, it is a research lab within a group fitness facility. I am fortunate enough to both participate in and teach group fitness classes there.  Currently, I teach different variations of indoor cycling, and have just passed initial training to teach a weightlifting class known as BodyPump.

How did you get into attending Fitology?

I have been attending since August 2013, at which point it had only been open for about eight months.  There was already a large following and the members were devoted to the studio.  It was a short matter of time before I caught the fitness bug and became a huge fan and regular participant.

What makes it stand out from the typical gym?

There are several factors that make Fitology unique among other gyms or studios. For one, the only thing occurring in the studio at any given time is group fitness. This means there is no cardio equipment or free weights. Simplistic in its design, there are two rooms, one for floor cardio, mixed interval, and strength classes and a second for indoor cycling classes. Another factor that makes Fitology special is the heavy focus on research. Like the name refers to, “Fitology” is literally the study of being fit.

So who is the PI for Fitology?

Dr. Jinger Gottschall is a partner of the studio as well as an associate professor of Kinesiology at Penn State and completes many studies at Fitology to continually improve upon the formats that Les Mills provides.  These studies include looking both at the importance of group fitness to keeping participants motivated and engaged in their workouts, but also the effectiveness of some exercises over others. This is super cool to me as a graduate student in Chemistry because I can really appreciate the science and work behind every workout I do at the studio, knowing that it has been tested and improved upon over many iterations, just like how we do experiments in the laboratory.

Then I'm sure other graduate students are drawn to the program as well?

Absolutely! Just to give a few examples, we have an instructor that is a Distinguished Professor of English, one who just recently defended his Ph.D. thesis in Bioinformatics and Genomics, a German Studies Ph.D., and the list goes on. So I figured if they can be successful at teaching in the studio and in their studies, so can I!

What have been some of the highlights of being an instructor?

I thought it would be a great opportunity to work on my own ability to motivate others. I wanted to know that I had an impact on other people’s lives. In the laboratory, we often have projects that may be indirectly related to helping solve world problems, like clean energy or fighting disease, but it is so far removed that you really don’t have a chance to see the effects long term. In the studio, I get to directly see participants get stronger, fitter, and more confident from the classes they take. There is a sense of fulfillment that I feel, knowing I have had a beneficial impact on those people. Not to mention now I get to drag all my friends to the studio to get them out of the lab.

Speaking of lab, has your experience working in lab and being a scientist made you a better fitness instructor?

YES! The importance of controls! When I am teaching an indoor cycling class, I like to be very methodical. This includes making sure the participants are executing each position on the bike with the correct form. First I like to lay out how we position our body, and then go into explaining how the body should feel in said position, and then move in to explaining what muscles they are working. If participants understand the what, how, and why of each position, they can exhibit accuracy and precision each time we move back to that position. Without those controls, the members wouldn’t benefit from the exercise.

How about the other way around... has being an instructor proven to help you unlock the secrets of RNA?

Being a fitness instructor has also made me much more confident in terms of public speaking. When instructing, you have to learn to breathe, talk, exercise, and smile at the same time. I also have to focus on making eye contact with the participants to make them know I am engaged in their experience and in tune with how they are feeling. This really leaves little room to be nervous, especially when you realize that this workout is for them, and they are not worried about how you act. You are only enhancing their experience. The same goes to public speaking. I am only there to improve the audience’s ability to take in and understand my presentation. The more confidently and controlled I speak, the better the experience. This is not to say that my heart doesn’t pound before presentations, but I am able to breath, smile and even enjoy the experience. So maybe it hasn’t helped me unlock the secrets of RNA, but it has certainly helped me communicate just how phenomenal RNA is!

Finally, I know that you love going on adventures with your dog Homer, whether jogging or hiking.  Do you have any plans for adapting Fitology for our canine friends?

It’s funny you mention this. Many members and instructors at Fitology have pups that are inherently active because of their owners. But just like humans are not automatically fit and may not be able to run 10 miles in one shot, or scale the boulders of Rothrock State Park, neither are dogs. I know some members who have asked for Dr. Gottschall to develop a training plan for their dogs so that they will be able to frolic with the same agility as their fit mamas and papas. So until LesMills International comes out with a canine BodyPump class, I think that’s going to have to do.


Erica teaches RPM on Wednesday mornings at 5:30AM at Fitology, located at 542 Westerly Pkwy, State College. She can be reached at  If you are interested in learning more about Fitology or Les Mills group fitness, please visit: