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DISCOVERY

Running Hot and Cold

DISCOVERY

Running Hot and Cold

DISCOVERY

Running Hot and Cold

Former alpine ski racer Dr. Matthew White has gone indoors to study how bodies react in extreme environmental conditions.

As an alpine ski racer for more than twenty years, Matthew White has grappled with almost every condition imaginable on the slopes: wet, powdery, loose and packed snow; temperatures ranging from the toe-freezing to sweat-inducing; and varying altitudes that impacted his ability to breathe. White still contends with fluctuating conditions—only now from his lab at SFU where he conducts research to better understand how the human body reacts to extreme environments.  

For example, he created hot and humid conditions in a walk-in climatic chamber at his Laboratory for Exercise & Environmental Physiology so that the Canadian men’s field hockey team could acclimate to the balmy weather predicted for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“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 both mountain search and rescue workers and for athletes competing in outdoor winters sports.”

In 2008, he introduced a prototype for a breath-by-breath End-Tidal Forcing (ETF) system, a device that produces a rapid induction of hypoxia to allow the study of human physiological response while experiencing a reduced delivery of oxygen to body tissues. It works by delivering manipulated levels of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen to the lungs to simulate stressful environments such as those experienced in mountain climbing. 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 that are especially vulnerable to heat waves and 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 for tests to be done at colder temperatures—up to a shockingly frigid minus 50 degrees Celsius. The chamber will allow his team to study human physiological response at temperatures 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 to assess cold-weather apparel designs. MEC and other Canadian companies usually rely on American labs for similar thermal testing and to develop athletic clothing for extreme environments.

In addition to its sports applications, research that results from the new chamber will also 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. 

References

Dr. Matthew White is an associate professor of environmental ergonomics and physiology at SFU. His research interests include human temperature regulation, control of breathing, and energy expenditure. In his career he has also researched differences between how thin men’s 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 Dr. Matthew White

If you could sum up the value of university research in a word, what would it be?

Essential.

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 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. What do you see as a noteworthy, emerging trend shaping the future of university research?

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. 

If you could sum up the value of university research in a word, what would it be?

Essential.