Former alpine ski racer Dr. Matthew White went from the slopes to the lab to study how bodies react in extreme environmental conditions
During his twenty-plus years as an alpine ski racer, Matthew White grappled with almost every condition imaginable on the slopes: wet, powdery, loose or packed snow, temperatures from toe-freezing to sweat-inducing, and a range of altitudes that differently impacted his breathing capability.
White still contends with fluctuating environmental conditions, only now its from SFU’s Laboratory for Exercise & Environmental Physiology (LEEP) where he conducts research to better understand how the human body reacts to extreme environments.
When balmy weather was predicted for the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, the Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology associate professor created hot and humid conditions in LEEP’s walk-in climatic chamber so that the Canadian men’s field hockey team could acclimate.
“Our research has made significant contributions to the understanding of human performance in cold climates,” says White. “We have shown upper limb cooling provides substantive decreases in muscle strength and manual dexterity—enormous challenges for athletes competing in outdoor winters sports, as well as for mountain search and rescue workers.”
In 2008, he introduced a prototype for a breath-by-breath End-Tidal Forcing (ETF) system, a device that produces rapid induction of hypoxia to allow the study of human physiological response as body tissues experience a reduced delivery of oxygen. The EFT system delivers manipulated levels of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen to the lungs to simulate stressful environments, such as those experienced by mountain climbers. The invention could be used to assess which athletes are most suitable for competing in extreme high altitude conditions, and could also have medical applications for populations especially vulnerable to heat waves and deep winter freezes.
In 2014, White received funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to install a more sophisticated climatic chamber at his lab, one that allows tests to be done at much colder temperatures—up to a shockingly frigid minus 50 degrees Celsius. The chamber will allow his team to study human physiological response to temperatures which are still relatively unexplored in the research literature.
The new chamber will also enable his lab to expand on collaborations with outdoor clothing companies, including Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), to conduct studies assessing cold-weather apparel designs. MEC and other Canadian companies usually rely on American labs for thermal testing and to develop athletic clothing for extreme environments.
In addition to its sports applications, research that results from the new chamber could contribute to better health care and safety management policies for those who work in extreme climates, such as search and rescue teams or commercial fishers. White’s ultimate goal is to develop SFU as a centre of excellence in environmental physiology and environmental ergonomics.
Shore, Randy. "Device Detects those Who Will Suffer most from Global Warming Heat Waves; Apparatus could also Predict Athletic Performance at Different Altitudes." The Vancouver Sun, Feb 11 2010. ProQuest. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Matthew White is an associate professor of environmental ergonomics and physiology in SFUs department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology. His research interests include human temperature regulation, control of breathing, and energy expenditure. In his career he has also researched differences between how thin and obese men’s bodies react to cold conditions, finding that the obese people display facultative or adaptive thermogenesis (i.e. the obese have a reduced non-shivering metabolic response in mild cold relative the thin).
Q & A with Matthew White
If you could sum up the value of university research in a word, what would it be?
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
My research engages trainees on all levels from undergraduate, graduate to postdoctoral fellows in both basic and applied studies in environmental and exercise physiology. Our collaborators with companies like MEC, Coleman, and assistance to organizations like Underwriters laboratories and the Canadian and US Coast Guards, engages both industry, the USA, as well as the Canadian governments' service sectors to help fulfill their mandates to help save lives. My research extends to sports groups as well as organizations and their athletes are engaged in my research. Examples include our study of performance and physiology of ultra marathon runners in the North Shore Knee Knackering Trail run.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
Collaborations with academics, the community and industry are pivotal to advancing research.
SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?
To have maintained a dynamic and adaptive open learning and research environment, where youth have been engaged to help resolve problems and make the world a healthier place to live.
Putting one's research out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you get your courage?
Research is nebulous and lures one into the unknown so it's not a place for the faint of heart. It takes strong resolve to be a researcher since new ideas will be challenged by your colleagues and the public, sometimes in a less than diplomatic way. It's important to have a thick skin at times.