Big lift: Student researcher excels in the lab and in the gym

John Taylor wear a Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences t-shirt.

John Tyler earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical sciences in May from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. (Photo: Sandra Kicman)

By Bill Bruton

Release Date: August 15, 2023

Panayotis Thanos.
“He’s extremely enthusiastic about doing research on exercise and exercise neuroscience. ”
Thanyotis Panos, PhD, Senior research scientist, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Until recently, most of what Panayotis K. Thanos, PhD, a University at Buffalo senior research scientist, knew about John Tyler was that he was a student researcher in his lab.

Then Tyler asked Thanos if he could take some time off in May.

“It was right before finals, and John comes to me and says, ‘Is it OK if I don’t come in? I’ve got a competition to go to.' I said ‘Of course. By the way, what kind of competition is it?’” says Thanos, a faculty member in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

That’s when Tyler revealed that he is the U.S. national powerlifting champion, and that he was going to represent the U.S. at the International Powerlifting Federation World Championships in Sun City, South Africa.

“I couldn’t believe it. He’s such a soft-spoken person, and very humble,” Thanos adds. (See video.)

Three-time U.S. powerlifting champion

Tyler, who earned his BS in biomedical sciences from the Jacobs School in May, is a three-time U.S. powerlifting champion. The Watertown, New York, native, is also an excellent student-researcher with a passion for addiction medicine who graduated with a 3.94 grade-point average and dreams of becoming a physician.

“A lot of my undergraduate research and volunteer work has focused on improving care for people with substance use disorder. In my freshman year, I worked in an addiction clinic. That’s really when it hit home because I saw people I knew, people in my community, suffering from this epidemic,” Tyler says, noting that his hometown is in a region of New York State with some of the highest overdose rates in the state. “I vowed to be a part of the solution and now I’m working with Dr. Thanos studying addiction medicine.”

John Taylor lifting weights at his gym.

John Tyler during a July workout at Jada Blitz Fitness in Williamsville.

The research he is doing combines two areas close to his heart — addiction medicine and sports medicine. Specifically, Tyler is interested in the role that exercise can play in helping those suffering from addiction.

“It all comes down to the modulation of dopamine. That’s a big buzzword right now. Dopamine plays a major role in the reward pathway, which is where you get addiction,” Tyler says. “When you positively modulate dopamine, you can help improve numerous diseases. Exercise is helpful for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, Alzheimer’s disease. Really, for almost any mental disorder out there, exercise is helpful.”

His interests turned out to coincide with a project Thanos was working on.

“We gave him different types of training in the lab, and he really excelled. He did a fantastic job, not only in terms of learning those techniques, but also applying those techniques in the research project from the beginning, all the way to collecting the results, and then writing up those results in a peer-reviewed journal,” Thanos says. “He’s already first author on one published article, he’s first author on a second article that’s in review at a high-impact journal, and he’s involved in a third project remotely right now,” Thanos adds. “He’s extremely enthusiastic about doing research on exercise and exercise neuroscience.”

As challenging as research can be, Tyler has also overcome numerous hurdles as an athlete.

Building strength for wrestling

He found his way to powerlifting in a roundabout way in order to build strength as a wrestler. A three-time regional champion in wrestling at Immaculate Heart High School in Watertown, he once finished third in the state.

Then he was diagnosed with severe Osgood-Schlatter disease, which is inflammation of the area below the knee where the tendon from the kneecap attaches to the shinbone.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t wrestle any more. The sports medicine specialist said I needed to quit. So, I started doing rehabilitation, and that’s really where I got into lifting. Through sports medicine and rehab, I found my passion for lifting,” Tyler says.

By the time he was 15, he had broken the state deadlift record for his age and weight class.

“After that, I just stuck with it,” Tyler says. “Now I have three national records.”

John Taylor on the podium, placing third at the Worlds competition.

John Tyler (second from right) stands on the podium after getting the bronze medal at the International Powerlifting Federation World Championships in May in Sun City, South Africa.

A series of setbacks

Just being able to compete at this year’s World Championships turned out to be quite a feat.

“Three months out, I came down with a low-grade supraspinatus tear,” says Tyler. That’s where the tendon of the supraspinatus muscle — a part of the rotator cuff of the shoulder — tears. So, Tyler ended up back in rehab.

“Then a week out, somebody broke into my car and stole all my gym gear — my singlet, my uniform, everything I needed to compete. A bunch of my buddies helped me gather gym gear and uniforms and other items so that I could still compete.”

After a 32-hour flight to South Africa, he had more struggles to deal with.

“The day before the competition I came down with gastroenteritis — really bad food poisoning. I lost over seven pounds in a day, and I weighed in the lightest out of the top five in my weight bracket,” Tyler says. “I weighed in 10 pounds less than I was supposed to weigh in at.”

His weight group is 205 pounds (93 kilograms), and he weighed in at 195 pounds.

The final setback occurred when he was in the bathroom dealing with the food poisoning prior to the competition. At that point, he had been told he had an hour before he had to compete.

“Then my coach comes running in saying ‘get your butt out here, you have 10 minutes to warm up!’ They had changed the flights around and the coaches didn’t know it,” Tyler says. “So, I ended up having 10 minutes to get ready and warm up.”

Despite all those setbacks, he still won the bronze medal.

“I was predicted to take first. The guy who ended up finishing first (Axel Samuelsson of Sweden) put up 195 kilograms (429.9 pounds). My last competition before that I put up 197.5 kilos (435.4 pounds), and that was unpeaked,” Tyler says. “When you prepare for a competition you peak for it, so that should bring your numbers up even more. I was shooting for 200 to 205 kilos (441 to 452 pounds).

“All those setbacks brought me back a little, but I still made it on to the podium and represented Buffalo and the U.S.A.”

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