The Realization of a Vision

Centre: first chair of the Department of Kinesiology, Eric Banister, 1932 – 2010
by Craig Asmundson, Parveen Bawa, and Harry King

The multidisciplinary Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology (BPK) is making news around the world. It builds on the basic sciences to study human movement, structure, and function, and its discoveries are having a significant impact on our health.

The department has its origins in the pioneering work of the late Eric Banister, who died in June 2010. This article on the journey that led to BPK is written in his memory, and it intertwines the history of the department and his crucial role in it. Banister provided much of the vision and energy that led to the establishment of the School of Kinesiology that became BPK in 2009. The new name better reflects the department's breadth of research and teaching, as does its move from the Faculty of Applied Sciences to the Faculty of Science.

BPK THE REALIZATION OF A VISION began in 1965 as the Department of Physical Development Studies in the Faculty of Education; in 1966 an Interdisciplinary Committee in Kinesiology was formed. In 1967 Banister joined the department and SFU instituted the degree of Bachelor of Science (Kinesiology) for students wanting to become physical education specialists or to pursue graduate studies in research. It was the first interdisciplinary program in this field in North America. In 1970 the department was split when faculty with an interest in physical education transferred to the Professional Development Centre within the Faculty of Education. The remaining faculty became the Department of Kinesiology, the first in Canada, with Banister as its chair.

Banister's goal was to create a department where there was a multidisciplinary, scientific approach to solving problems and advancing knowledge in the areas of health, fitness, and sport, a unique approach in the 1960s. He achieved this by bringing in faculty members from a wide variety of seemingly disparate fields to pool their knowledge and talents to study problems.

Banister was a man of exceptional vision, energy, and action. Born in England in 1932, he received his BSc in chemistry from the University of Manchester (1954), an MPE from UBC (1960), and a PhD in applied physiology from the University of Illinois (1964). In his school days he had been an outstanding athlete, participating in football, gymnastics, javelin, high jump, and racquet sports. He saw myriad connections between his scientific training and his love of physical activity.

There was little understanding of the word "kinesiology" at that time, so advocacy and persuasion were needed. Banister provided a strong and eloquent voice, promoting both a wider view of the benefits of exercise and of studying it scientifically. His ideas were a decade or more ahead of his time.

In 1978 he made a presentation to the Ministry of Recreation and Conservation of B.C., saying, "if Canadian companies built recreation centres for their employees, the result may be a healthier workforce and profit picture." He also promoted the importance of preventive medicine: in 1971 he launched the Lower Mainland Preventative Medical Centre, and later he became the first director of the Geraldine and Tong Louie Human Performance Centre at SFU Vancouver. These centres provided a place in the core of downtown Vancouver for exercise and for testing fitness levels.

Today, in keeping with Banister's vision, BPK is growing in many directions. There are now 18 professors and eight lecturers. Ten new young, dynamic professors have been hired since 2005. The faculty includes anatomists, biochemists, biologists, biomechanists, biophysicists, engineers, ergonomists, kinesiologists, physicians, and physiologists. They all apply their knowledge to study human movement, structure, and function throughout the life cycle, in health and disease, in benign and extreme environments, at work, at home, at sports, and at play.

From its start in 1970 with 25 majors, the undergraduate program has grown to 760 majors, 105 minors, and 400 students in its certificate programs. The number of students in BPK courses per year now exceeds 7,000.

Students can obtain major or minor degrees in either kinesiology or biomedical physiology. Certificate students can choose either the Certificate in Health and Fitness Studies or the Certificate in Applied Human Nutrition. In addition there is the behavioural neuroscience
program, a joint major between BPK and the Psychology Department. BPK has also collaborated with the Faculty of Engineering Science to create a biomedical engineering program.

In 2009 a new concentration in exercise and nutrition in health and disease (ENHD) was designed in the kinesiology major program to run at the SFU Surrey campus. This new concentration will build on the basic sciences (biology, chemistry, molecular biology, mathematics, physics, and statistics) as applied to nutrition, exercise, and metabolism.

A strong practical application will focus on chronic disease prevention and early detection, nutrition and exercise programs to prevent chronic diseases, and nutrition and exercise programs for individuals who already have chronic diseases. The ENHD program will provide certification-ready practitioners to serve the health needs of the South Fraser community. Experiential learning will be a key element of the program, which will start once there is funding.

The BPK co-op program was established in 1978 - 79 and has grown to consistently support approximately 130 co-op work-term placements per year in a wide range of employment areas and geographic locations. It has experienced a 50 percent increase in the number of applications per year since 2008. At graduation 45 percent of students from BPK have participated in the co-op program, well above the overall 22 percent participation rate in co-op for all SFU undergraduate students.

The graduate program in the Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology has 50 students and exposes them to a broad range of experimental and analytical skills in biomedical science. Approximately half the graduate students are female.

The diversity and level of research being conducted by faculty members in the Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology is impressive. Of 18 research faculty there are two Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research scholars, two Heart and Stroke Foundation scholars, two Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) investigators, and 1.5 Canada Research Chair scholars. BPK received a total of $4,020,881 in external research funding in 2010 - 11.

Recent research highlights include the following:

  • Diane Finegood, founding scientific director of the CIHR Institute for Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes, received the 2008 Frederick G. Banting Award from the Canadian Diabetes Association.
  • Max Donelan's research on an energy harvesting device to generate power while we walk appeared in Science magazine and was named one of the top 50 inventions of 2008 in Time magazine.
  • Andy Hoffer received top technology awards for his pioneering work over more than 30 years of conceiving and developing implantable medical devices. He created the Neurostep, a fully implanted assistive device that uses nerve cuffs to sense and stimulate nerve activity in a paralyzed leg and enable movement in those suffering from neurological disabilities. Hoffer is currently developing the Lungpacer, a device designed to wean patients from ventilators and let them breathe independently. This could significantly reduce hospital stays and health care costs.
  • Miriam Rosin is a principal investigator in a $4.7 million study recently funded by the Terry Fox Research Institute. It will test nationally the efficacy of a surgical tool that has already been proven to save lives in B.C. and bring new hope to those with a devastating and deadly form of oral cancer. During the last five years a hand-held fluorescence visualization, or blue light tool, developed at the B.C. Cancer Agency has been proven to prevent oral cancer recurrence by detecting previously unrecognized cancer cells.

Banister's vision of creating a multidisciplinary department at SFU to advance the understanding of physiology, movement, and human health through fundamental and applied research, education, and service has been achieved far beyond his dreams.

The Cardiovascular Physiology Group  

Focuses on heart and vascular function at the molecular, cellular, and systems levels, with applications to congenital heart disease, disease prevention, and drug design. This group studies congenital heart diseases including dysfunction of cardiac ion channels (channelopathies) and contractile proteins (cardiomyopathies), both of which can result in arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death.

This strong research focus has close ties with systems-level physiology research in areas including autonomic cardiovascular control, the effects and mechanisms of autonomic dysfunction (e.g., spinal cord injury and chronic exposure to hypoxia), cardiac arrhythmia, and syncope.

The Environmental Physiology Group

Utilizes an integrative systems approach to understanding whole body human physiology as a function of changes in environmental conditions. The research infrastructure includes the Environmental Physiology Unit, a university facility unique in Canada. It contains multi-person hypo/hyperbaric and climatic chambers that can simulate extreme environmental conditions.

The research ranges from fundamental to applied topics of human physiological responses and adaptations to extreme environments. The group has a strong emphasis on computational systems modelling to help understand underlying physiological control mechanisms. It also has a strong interest in the effects of aging and health status in relation to environmental exposure; recent work has been associated with cardiovascular and respiratory control in hypoxia as well hot and cold environments.

The Neuroscience Group

Studies a range of topics, including neurophysiology of motor control, cellular properties of neurons and neuronal circuitry, the pathophysiology of degenerative neurological diseases, and the molecular biophysics underlying membrane properties of neurons.

The Chronic Disease Group

Provides multidisciplinary training in the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, from individual physiology to the broader scope of community health and disease treatment. Multidisciplinary knowledge creation and exchange are essential weapons against the growing epidemics of chronic diseases.

This innovative program is intended to help students consider chronic disease as part of a complex health system, from individual physiology to the broader scope of community health and disease treatment. The goal is to develop a networked research community centred on an innovative and multidisciplinary training program for highly qualified graduate students in chronic diseases research.

The Neuromechanics Group

Integrates biomechanics and neurophysiology to understand movement in health and disease. It has applications to rehabilitation medicine, robotics, energy harvesting, injury prevention, and aging. Research includes basic and applied studies on gait (in both healthy and stroke patients), mobility, posture, falls and injuries in older adults, visuomotor control, comparative neuromechanics and scaling, neuroanatomy, neuroprosthetic rehabilitation, muscle mechanics, and muscle imaging.

Photography: Top photo montage elements:,, Greg Ehlers/TLC SFU, Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology. Spine, pull quote: . Biomedical Physiology: Greg Ehlers/TLC