Stephen Busch

Stephen Busch

Stephen Busch, MSc student in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, is joining his supervisor and KSR assistant professor Dr. Craig Steinback on a rare investigative journey to Kathmandu alongside colleagues from around the world as part of a massive multi-national research excursion.

Stephen and Dr. Steinback are working with collaborators from the UK to lead one of the major research arms of the expedition. Their studies focus on understanding the body's fight or flight responses sympathetic nervous system - is activated and regulated during exposure to high altitude, and how these responses differ between lowlanders and the peoples native to high altitude environments, such as the Nepalese Sherpa

Stephen shared some of his thoughts and experiences leading up the excursion with us. We will follow-up with Stephen and Dr. Steinback upon their return in late October 2016 to see recap this unique excursion.

When did you find out you were going to be going on this research excursion?
I was offered to join the expedition around mid-January of 2016. Leading up to that Craig had been hinting for a month or so about an exciting opportunity coming up. When I was officially offered to join there was no hesitation to say yes. I understood the unique opportunity at hand but also knew the massive undertaking required to be involved with a research expedition of this size. Since then Craig, myself and several other co-collaborators have developed a study that will provide unique perspectives to the altitude physiology field.

What are you most looking forward to for this trip?
The opportunity to visit Nepal itself provides enough reason to be excited. Nepal boasts one of the most diverse cultural backgrounds and geographical landscapes in the world. The Nepalese people themselves easily earn the respect of travellers for their positive attitudes and lighthearted look on life even with such a turbulent history. It is also the ultimate playgrounds for adventure seekers and backpacking enthusiasts that merits more than one visit to experience. The Ev-K2-CNR "Italian Pyramid" facility is located within the Khumbu Valley about 2 hours hike from Mount Everest. It sits at around 5050m but is still dwarfed by the world's tallest mountains that surround it. It is indeed a very alien environment that humans were not meant to live at. I look forward to leaving my mark at this historic facility as a researcher amongst the very few who have the opportunity to have stayed there.

Through your research, what questions are you hoping to answer?
Our lab focuses on how the sympathetic nervous system (aka. our bodies 'fight or flight" response) changes to environmental stressors. Previous studies have shown that people who travel to high altitude develop elevated sympathetic activity that persists during and after return to lower elevations. What is unclear is how or even if this elevation in activity contributes to the acclimatization process. We hope to show what exact role the sympathetic nervous system plays. Nepal also is home to the world renowned Sherpa's of the Khumbu Valley who are known for their amazing ability to thrive at high altitude. Although many studies have looked at the underlying physiology allowing them to live and work at altitude; very little has looked specifically at how their sympathetic nervous system responds. We hope to shed further light on this unique population compared to people who live at lower elevations.

Are you nervous about what your reaction will be to the high altitude?
I am not necessarily nervous of my reaction to high altitude as I am aware of the consequences from poor acclimatization. Ascending to altitude produces numerous physiological adaptations that vary between individuals. Eventually everyone begins to feel some form of discomfort with ascent to higher elevations. Unfortunately there is no proven way to screen for how well people will do at altitude. The best preventative measures for travelling to higher altitude is taking things slowly and allowing you body to properly recover when you are not feeling your best. I am fairly familiar with the symptoms of poor acclimatization from previous experiences and can attest to the importance of rest and recovery (chocolate helps too). Trekking in the Himalayas provides some of the most awe-inspiring backdrops so there is extra incentive to take your time and enjoy the views!

How has the trip to Kelowna to do the base testing helped to prepare you for the main excursion?
Kelowna proved to be extremely important in preparation for Nepal. Aside from collecting baseline measures of our participants; Kelowna also allowed us to see what did and didn't work for the study. We prepared for Kelowna with the intention of being self-sufficient from day one. This required us to have everything in order prior to leaving Edmonton as to allow maximal time allotment to testing. One important skill in research is to prepare and be flexible for any situation. Although Kelowna was fairly similar with respect to our lab, we treated this as an opportunity to streamline our protocol and plan what might limit us in Nepal. This skill will be crucial up at Italian Pyramid due to the remoteness of the research facility and complications that can arise from research abroad. Kelowna also solidified with everybody involved their respective roles for the Pyramid. Everybody collaborating on this study provides a unique skill that is critical in the success of the study.

As a Masters student, what are your overall thoughts of being able to go on a research excursion like this so early in your investigative career?
Words cannot describe how it feels to be involved with a research excursion of this size. Previously during my undergrad I was fortunate enough to have ventured to Nepal for volunteering and trekking. At that time this same research group was doing a similar expedition at the pyramid. It was at that point I made a personal goal to be involved in an expedition during my academic career. I did not realize that this goal would be reached only a few years later. The quality of studies going on during this expedition will help answer fundamental questions that still exist in altitude physiology. Furthermore, collaboration on this expedition involves some of the top leaders within the altitude physiology field. To summarize this is an amazing opportunity for me to pursue my passion in environmental physiology and will certainly shape where my future academic career goes.