Since she was a child, Dr. Zoe Harrison, 26, has always loved a challenge − she walked before turning one and read at a fourth-grade level when she entered elementary school. So naturally, she decided to pursue the highest level of academia and get her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.

On top of her academic responsibilities, Zoe is committed to prioritizing her fitness journey, spending seven days a week breaking a sweat in the gym or one of her many fitness classes.

Higher education, higher pressure

After Zoe completed her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, she realized she had a passion for laboratory research and wasn’t ready to give that up for a full-time corporate job just yet. She decided to pursue her master’s at the University of Memphis, where she eventually completed the highest level of education in her field and got her Ph.D.

Her research covered chemical modification of biomaterials, such as wound dressings and titanium implants, for infection prevention and the development and testing of non-antibiotic methods to prevent and treat infection.

The complex nature of her research meant Zoe juggled full-time classes and full-time lab work, even spending time on the weekends performing bacterial studies or culturing cells. As a result, she often put in more than 40 hours a week, especially since she was determined to finish the program in less than five years, which is the standard path for those pursuing their Ph.D. in that field.

Finding fitness beats stress

So, how does working out fit into this packed schedule? Prioritizing her fitness journey has helped Zoe more effectively manage the stress of her academic career.

As an undergraduate, she didn’t focus on staying active, and her mental health suffered as a result. However, once she began her master’s program, she knew she had to take control and take proactive measures to ensure her mental health stayed intact under the pressure of higher-level academic pursuits.

In the fall of 2018, Zoe’s academic and fitness journey began. She started going to the gym every morning before school and had a workout routine that involved basic cardio and weightlifting. She grew to love starting her day with movement and found that it was essential to her success in her education.

“I’ve always loved the creative problem-solving aspect of my field,” she explains. “So often, something will go wrong in the lab or with a certain test that is completely out of your control. While I enjoy these challenges, it is nice waking up in the morning and completely controlling how I want my workout to look and how I choose to move my body that day.”

Mixing it up makes a difference

Since beginning her fitness journey and discovering a true passion for exercise, Zoe has found that mixing it up makes all the difference. From hot yoga to kickboxing to weightlifting to biking to running her first half marathon in 2021, Zoe’s a jack of all trades in fitness.

“I feel like I thrive the most when challenged and out of my comfort zone, which is how I’ve found myself with lots of variety in my fitness routine,” she says. “It’s fun to try new things and find that childlike energy and excitement that can be lost in the minutia of day-to-day adult routines.”

Her current workout routine usually starts with weightlifting in the morning, focusing on functional strength training, followed by cardio. In the afternoon, she will typically attend a class at Hot Yoga Plus or go for a long walk.

The challenge continues

Zoe defended her dissertation in June and is officially Zoe Harrison, Ph.D. She recently accepted a job offer at a local medical device company, formally marking the beginning of her transition from academic to corporate America.

She’s committed to continuing to make time for her fitness goals and notes how crucial it is to remain mentally focused during such a transitional time.

She’s also not done pushing the boundaries with her athletic goals. When asked about new fitness challenges she’s looking forward to, Zoe shares her exciting progress in the Hot Yoga Plus handstand class and her desire to run another half marathon someday.

Being active in the local fitness community, she knows she won’t have to look very far for her next challenge. “The Memphis fitness community is amazing and constantly growing, so there will always be fun new classes popping up for me to try.”

By Lucy Modzelewski
Photo by Tindall Stephens