Talking Real Science with Oliver Wearing

This episode of Share Science features Dr. Oliver Wearing, Mitacs Accelerate Industrial Postdoctoral Fellow and UBC Killam Laureate in the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences at the University of British Columbia. His research aims to develop next-generation radiotelemetry devices that monitor the cardiovascular function of small and large animal models to try and better enable us to generate safe and effective translational therapies to restore cardiovascular function following spinal cord injury. Oliver Wearing was recently interviewed at the inaugural American Physiology Summit in Long Beach, California, and won the InsideScientific Science Communications Content Creator Kit.

How did you enjoy the inaugural summit? And what was your favorite part of the four day long meeting?

I think the best thing about the APS summit, for me at least, is the diverse range of disciplines that are on offer at that conference. It’s pretty rare to have such a broad array of different sub-disciplines of physiological research on display for such a large audience. I have pretty broad interests, and my work today actually spans quite a few of the different APS sections. So it’s really fantastic to have this smorgasbord of amazing physiology research to choose from. Just the volume of attendees and its profile in the community makes it a great opportunity to maximize your impact with past, present, and future colleagues and collaborators from around the world, as well as learn about cutting edge technologies and resources provided by the vendors and industry partners exhibiting in the physio hub. With any conference another highlight is networking and catching up with friends during ceremonies and all the different social mixes and, of course, afterwards at bars and restaurants near the convention center. Long Beach in California is a particularly nice spot to be doing that. 

Let’s get to know what shaped you into the researcher you are today: where did you grow up and how did your youth influence your path and passion towards science?

I grew up in a relatively small town in England called Macclesfield, and it was pretty rural. I definitely grew up with an appreciation for the environment and the natural world and wildlife as my parents love animals. My brother and I grew up around them, and we’d watch and identify, for example, the birds that would feed and bathe in our garden or whatever, and try to tell the difference between different species and things like that. My grandfather was also a really keen, I suppose you call him a hobbyist or an amateur scientist, and he taught me about his passions, and they would range from astronomy to botany to etymology to arachnology. He really sparked my curiosity in the scientific method, and how the world around us works, particularly the diversity of animals and the amazing places that some of them manage to live. I was also really lucky at school to have had some really incredibly inspiring teachers that helped nurture that curiosity. I got a huge deal of satisfaction learning how to figure things out, using scientific skills and knowledge, and those teachers really helped to develop that interest and passion for the sciences; that’s what really ultimately led me to pursue them at University.

You have an interesting array of research interests; where did you get your bachelor’s and PhD? What piqued your interest in the relationship between cardiovascular physiology and the autonomic nervous system and specifically your transition from your PhD research to what you’re studying today?

It’s been quite a long and winding road, but it’s been a really rewarding one. I did my bachelor’s degree at the University of Manchester in zoology and was really fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to do field work as well as professional experience placement. Lots of opportunities to delve into different fields of research over that time. My first research project was funnily enough in spider behavior and looking at the mating dances of a species of jumping spider that does these little dances to impress females to have access to mating, kind of an interesting start to research.

In my third year of my degree, I was very fortunate to work at the University of North Texas for a year, in the lab of Dr. Dane Crossley, looking at the developmental plasticity of physiological function in reptiles, specifically crocodiles and turtles. That research was really trying to figure out the effects of low oxygen during developmental time frames on later life physiological function, particularly cardiovascular function. Reptiles bury their eggs when they lay a nest. Over the time that these eggs are buried and the embryos inside them are developing. They consume oxygen in that nest, and so within that buried chamber, oxygen in that nest depletes over time. By the end of embryonic development, these animals are actually quite oxygen limited or hypoxic. So we were interested in what the effects of that are long term, and through that work, I got exposed to a lot of surgical techniques, instrumentation of the cardiovascular system. That project was really the start of what has become a central interest of mine in terms of the influence of hypoxia, this low oxygen on cardiovascular function.

That led me to pursue a PhD in the lab of Dr. Graham Scott at McMaster University looking at how hypoxia and living in a hypoxic environment for your whole lifetime can affect your cardiovascular function, and how animals that have specifically adapted at high altitude have evolved these mechanisms to cope with that challenging environment. So my thesis was looking at the cardiovascular circulatory adaptations to high altitude hypoxia and in deer mice that live at the top of the Rockies in the United States. That really was looking at the plasticity of a physiological function in response to hypoxia and comparing high altitude populations to low altitude populations to figure out the role of genetic adaptation over evolutionary time. Looking at the cardiovascular function and its control in that work, it led me to be interested in those systems of control: the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems control of cardiovascular function.

“Actually, funnily enough, it was through an InsideScientific webinar that I became aware of my current supervisor’s work, Dr. Chris West here at the University of British Columbia. His interest is in cardiac autonomic function in the setting of spinal cord injury.”

In patients with spinal cord injury, those systems of cardiovascular control are damaged, particularly the sympathetic nervous system. These patients, unfortunately, suffer from chronically low blood pressure or hypertension as well as instances of incredibly high heart rates and dangerous spikes in blood pressure that can even be fatal. Now I’m interested in that, and funnily enough, another common thread through the work is that hypoxia seems to be an actually promising way of enhancing the sympathetic nervous system’s influence on cardiovascular function in the setting of spinal cord injury, which is what that we’re involved in now.

I want to ask you about your title of a Mitacs Industrial postdoctoral fellow. What is this exactly? And how has achieving this helped in pursuing your research goals?

“Another interest of mine is technology and methodological development, to really help us better gain good physiological data using fewer, happier animals.”

In particular, for many years now, I’ve been interested in biotelemetry. While it’s been around for decades, there are certain things that we’re still unable to measure, just in terms of the technology that’s on offer. The Mitacs fellowship helped support my partnership with the industry to develop telemetry devices that will allow us to measure a suite of cardiovascular indices that we just haven’t been able to measure before. These devices are really important because we can now measure physiological function in animals without the complication of anesthesia, handling, tethering; it’s really a great tool to use to get really relevant physiological function in animals that are doing their thing at metabolic rates that are relevant. The other nice thing about this funding is that it supports me gaining industry experience that is traditionally difficult to gain from the academic setting, skill sets that you might not ordinarily be exposed to, from product design to engineering and commercialization and marketing. So there’s a really good opportunity to gain some skills that are traditionally not that attainable in the academic setting.

You’ve also won the 2022 Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship Award recently. Congratulations on that as well, what do you hope to achieve with this?

Well, the Killam Award is really one of the most prestigious postdoctoral awards available at the University of British Columbia. So I’m very honored and grateful to have had my work recognised by the University of British Columbia and the Killam Trust that provide the award. My goal of the work that’s supported through that funding is to explore ways in which we might optimize these potential hypoxia therapies that I alluded to before in spinal cord injury. A lot of our work is done in rodent models, so we have rats, and the work that’s funded or supported through the Killam award is to really tease out the mechanisms through which those hypoxia therapies work and optimize them. Another great benefit of that award is offering financial support to travel to conferences such as the APS summit and to build impact and connections that will hopefully benefit the work and lead to some exciting new possibilities in terms of asking the right questions and being best equipped to answer them properly. So, yeah, it’s great to get that recognition and support to do world class research. 

“I will say that coming from environmental physiology in animals that live at high altitude, I never dreamed of being able to contribute meaningfully to spinal cord injury research. I just never did. And honestly, without the InsideScientific webinar that Dr. Chris West gave that I saw, I wouldn’t be in this field and I wouldn’t be doing this research. And so I think making those connections between fields is huge, and I really do commend InsideScientific for providing those opportunities. It’s really great.”

Oh, thank you so much, glad to hear it. You’ve been publishing a lot lately, how do the results from several papers that have come out not too long ago impact your future work? What would you say comes next for you?

Some of my latest research was really heavy on the telemetry side of things, and looking at how routine function of animals living at high altitude. This is from the PhD, at least, how that physiology is modulated by these challenging conditions. I guess the main point of this is that a lot of the hypotheses that we initially came up with and we’re trying to test, we provided answers to those using the telemetry. 

Really, what became the interesting story from those experiments was not what we hypothesized. It was not the measurements that we were really interested in figuring out, it was some of these additional measures that we just happened to be able to collect at the same time, because that’s what the technology did. For example, one of the last papers that was in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the main story there was that body temperature differences can have really strong effects on the metabolic cost of thermoregulation, particularly in high altitude environments, and how high altitude mice have evolved the lower body temperature as an energy saving mechanism in this metabolically challenging habitat that they live in. That was nothing to do with what my main question was, which was all to do with cardiovascular function.  But because the technology could measure temperature we were able to find this really interesting and impactful finding.

“I guess it’s a reminder that we’re somewhat biased in our interpretations of studies and what we can actually get out of them just by the limitations of the technology.”

We were lucky that we were measuring body temperature, but what about all of the other things that we could be measuring? And we’re losing resolution on what is going on in an experiment just because we’re not measuring those things. So I think that’s obviously tied into the development of devices that allow us to measure additional things that are of huge value. That’s really what I’m probably going to have as a common theme in the future is the use of telemetry: to get physiologically relevant data in animals that are behaving as animals should, but also to help us expand our toolkit of what we can measure in those experiments, and I think there’s a lot of potential in leveraging nature solutions to physiological problems as well. Tying or bridging that gap between my PhD work in comparative and evolutionary physiology to now applied research that has clinical consequences, hopefully there’s a lot of unrealized potential in utilizing experiments in traditional or non-traditional model organisms. To talk of APS again just very quickly as we wrap up, I think there’s a lot of people in the American Physiological Society that do appreciate that unrealized potential, but I think we we can all do do more to spread the word and develop interest in collaborating between basic or comparative physiology and more applied fields.

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