Focused, Analytical, Introspective, Conscientious, Empathetic

These are the words that Tina Brinkley, PhD, associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine, uses to describe herself. Brinkley’s research focuses on lifestyle interventions – such as dietary changes, exercise and caloric restriction – and their effects on cardiovascular, metabolic and neurological outcomes in older adults. Her research aims to provide evidence that diet and exercise can both prevent and treat aging-related diseases.

A young woman wearing a dark jacket smiling at the camera.

Brinkley is passionate about mentoring and training the next generation of researchers. She co-leads the School of Medicine’s Alzheimer's Disease Research Center Research Education Component, which provides mentorship, education and training, as well as access to resources and research opportunities for trainees and faculty at all stages of career development. Brinkley also co-directs the School of Medicine’s Enhancing Undergraduate Education and Research in Aging to Eliminate Health Disparities (ENGAGED) program, a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded program designed to advance diversity in aging research and health disparities research in aging. Through this program, underrepresented undergraduate students from Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem State University and other institutions have the opportunity to participate in educational activities, research internships and mentored training during the academic year and summer. Get to know her in her own words.

Tell us about your background. What’s your experience and how did you get into the field?

From an early age I was fortunate to have multiple opportunities that exposed me to MSTEM fields and enriched my personal and professional development. These experiences established a foundation for success and set me on a path to formulate and accomplish my goals. While I had a number of career interests as a child ranging from architect to writer to doctor, I can now see that I was always destined to have a career in a health-related field. I was a chemistry major in college, but I decided to pursue a minor in exercise and sport science my junior year because of my interest in health and fitness. This decision was a pivotal moment for me because it was the first time my personal and professional interests began to align.

What made you want to get into research?

The summer before my senior year in high school was my initial foray into research. I worked as an intern in a basic science laboratory at the Environmental Protection Agency, and this experience piqued my interest in the possibility of a career in research. After realizing that graduate school was in my future, I started seeking out opportunities to get more hands-on research experience.

Between my junior and senior year in college, I worked on three different research projects, which taught me about study design, implementation, data collection, and data analysis. I went to graduate school to study exercise physiology and aging, and my primary advisor gave me the freedom to create a niche for myself within a novel area of research related to exercise and genetics. I was hooked. I had discovered a newfound joy in asking interesting health-related questions, designing studies to answer those questions, writing “stories” (i.e., grants, papers) to describe my ideas and findings, and interacting with study participants. Ultimately, research fulfills my inquisitive and creative nature, allowing me to gain new knowledge and impact people’s lives in meaningful ways.

What makes opportunities at Wake Forest University School of Medicine unique?

I have spent over 16 years at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. I began my career at Wake as a postdoctoral fellow in gerontology and geriatric medicine and quickly learned that Wake was a good place for me to be. What I love about the School of Medicine is the access to amazing mentorship, opportunities to collaborate with brilliant faculty, and the multitude of resources and support, especially for early career investigators.

As a researcher with interests in both aging and Alzheimer’s disease, I feel extremely fortunate to be at one of only two academic institutions in the world that have both a Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center and an Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC). The innovative collaborations that exist between our Pepper Center and ADRC are unique, and I thoroughly enjoy being a part of such innovative research with prominent leaders in the field.

How does the combined structure of Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Atrium Health support your research efforts?

I was very excited when Atrium Health and the School of Medicine joined forces. I have commuted to Winston-Salem from the Charlotte area for nearly 15 years and have long recognized the untapped potential to extend our research enterprise to this region. I have already begun collaborating with a researcher at Atrium Health to test the feasibility and efficacy of a novel, synchronous, home-based virtual exercise training program for rural-living older adults with cardiovascular disease.

This, and other collaborations with Charlotte-based researchers, will allow me to reach a wider demographic of study participants than I have been able to in the past, which is exciting given the need for more diversity in clinical research.

What’s the most exciting research you’ve worked on?

For me, the most exciting research has come from opportunities to expand my portfolio of expertise. For example, I have been interested in exercise and vascular health for a long time. Shortly after I came to the School of Medicine, I began developing an interest and expertise in obesity and weight loss. The first external grant I received was from the American Heart Association, which provided funds to conduct a clinical trial that paired these research interests. It was exciting to see this come together, but what was even more exciting was the unexpected media buzz that resulted when the findings were published in Circulation.

Additionally, my research interests have grown to include Alzheimer’s disease. Over the past five years I have had been awarded multiple grants that connect my interests in exercise, diet, vascular health and obesity with health outcomes relevant to Alzheimer’s disease. As a result, I am forming new networks and collaborations both within and outside of the School of Medicine. It’s exciting to be able to work on novel areas of research that may ultimately modify the prevention and treatment of this and other aging-related diseases.

What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?

I have worked very hard over the past 10 years to establish myself as an independent researcher with a strong track record of publications and extramural funding. At times it felt like it was never going to happen, but finally in 2019 all that hard work paid off. Within a span of nine months I was awarded three major NIH grants totaling over $15 million, and I became one of the highest funded faculty investigators in my department.

Along with that came a promotion to associate professor, tenure, and a host of requests to speak at external conferences, serve on reviewer panels and collaborate on grants. It’s been exciting and rewarding to see the fruits of my labor, and I hope this success continues for many years to come.

What are some of your hobbies or interests outside of work?

I enjoy listening to music and watching movies. Also, family movie nights with my husband, Carl, and our two children, Peyton (8) and Mason (2), are always a hit. I’ve recently started dabbling in scrapbooking to create fun memories from our family vacations. Most recently we spent Christmas in Hawaii, where we swam with sea turtles and danced at a luau.