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.