My globetrotting PhD into high altitude physiology

Benjamin Stacey is undertaking a PhD in Physiology and Biochemistry at USW's Neurovascular Research Laboratory researching the effects of low oxygen levels on the regulation of brain function.

"Understanding how the brain defends oxygen delivery to itself is of significant clinical importance when you consider that many brain disorders, such as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and associated dementias are characterised by an impairment in oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain. 

"During the third year of my Sport and Exercise degree, I opted to study Environmental Physiology, which allowed me to learn about how the human body responds to heat/cold stress and of particular interest, high altitude.

"It was fascinating to discover the adaptations that occur to humans when they are exposed  to over half the amount of oxygen that they breathe at sea-level. After completing my degree a PhD studentship investigating the influence of high altitude on the brain was advertised and I was appointed.

"It was an easy transition into the research team as I knew my supervisors - Professor Damian Bailey, Dr Christopher Marley and Dr Lewis Fall - and the research team. Plus, the facilities on campus are state-of-the-art allowing world leading research to be conducted."

"Anyone who tells you a PhD is a walk in a park is either outright lying or has likely not attempted to complete one! It was a big jump from undergraduate level with the first six months involving a mountain of reading (which never seems to end), learning multiple laboratory techniques and drinking an obscene amount of coffee.

"However, I have had to chance to travel internationally to conduct my research, had seven peer-reviewed publications, led three research studies with international collaborators and presented my research at five international conferences."

"The highlight has been joining an international research expedition to Peru with Global Research Expedition on Altitude Related Chronic Health (Global Reach). Global Reach is a 45-person international research team consisting of academics and physicians who conduct scientific expeditions to investigate how humans adapt to high altitude.

"In June 2018, we embarked on the 30-day expedition completing more than 15 major scientific studies and racking up over 3,000 hours of scientific testing in Peru’s Cerro de Pasco—a mining town at 4,330 meters

"Experiments ranged from simple blood sampling, cerebrovascular and cardiovascular ultrasonography and maximal exercise tests to more invasive procedures including arterial blood sampling, haemodilution and microneurography.

"After a month living at high altitude, we took full advantage of being in Peru (and our extra red blood cells we obtained through acclimatising) by completing a six- day trek in the Andes mountains, playing with every stray dog and finally, a trip to Machu Picchu.

"The findings of this expedition will be disseminated in peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences throughout 2019. The first publication from this expedition can be found in the journal Hypertension."

"I’m in the final stages of my PhD and writing up my thesis for submission by the end of the year.

"Achieving the highest academic qualification will be an achievement in itself, but I would like to continue developing this area of research, publishing in some of the best medical journals and ultimately be recognised internationally for the work I do."