Altitude research brings Queen’s student to Mount Everest

PhD candidate conducts research at Mount Everest base camp

Walsh pauses for a quick photo at Everest Base Camp in Nepal
Walsh pauses for a quick photo at Everest Base Camp in Nepal.
Credit: 
Supplied by Jeremy Walsh

For most students, a birthday means throwing a party or going out to a favorite restaurant. For Queen’s PhD candidate Jeremy Walsh, his 30th birthday was spent watching the sun rise at the base of Mount Everest. 

Walsh has just returned from a research expedition, ongoing since April 30, that saw him and his team ascend to Mount Everest Base Camp.

The fourth year exercise physiology student had a pre-existing interest in the immediate cognitive improvements brought on by exercise.

By trekking to Everest Base Camp, Walsh could study firsthand how cognitive function is affected for subjects exercising in high altitudes for multiple days. In layman’s terms, he was studying the impact that climbing Everest has on the human brain.

The journey to Base Camp consisted of three main stops, during which Walsh would conduct his experiments as the team — consisting of both researchers and those from non-scientific backgrounds — acclimatized to the altitude.

The trek began at Kathmandu, then to Pheriche and lastly, Everest Base Camp itself.

In addition to Walsh’s exploration of the impact of exercise on cognitive activity, there was further research being conducted by the other researchers involved in the expedition.

“The group was incredible,” Walsh said, recalling ongoing jokes and the “hilarious personalities” that cropped up throughout the trip.

He noted that the connections he was able to make with primary investigators and faculty from other universities opened doors for potential research in the future.

“If I started putting together my own trips, I know who to go after,” he said. 

As for this expedition, Walsh’s participation came after a series of twists on the original plan.

The expedition was initially scheduled for May 2015, planned by Dr. Trevor Day, an Associate Professor of Physiology at Mount Royal University.

While Day had planned the trip for his upper year physiology class, plans were derailed by the 2015 Nepali earthquake. The following year, only a handful of students from the original trip were able to re-commit to going.

Walsh jumped at the opportunity when he heard from a friend that Day was looking for colleagues at Mount Royal University, University of Victoria and Okanagan University College to join the trek and conduct their own research.

“The minute this came up as an opportunity, I had to seize it,” Walsh recalls.

Walsh and his group traveled lightly, hiring a local Sherpa named Nima as their lead guide.

This gave the group the mobility to conduct their experiments at various points in their trek, as well as allowing money to flow back into the Nepalese economy.

“[Nima] took us into his family house in Khunde and served us tea,” Walsh said.

“It’s one thing if you’re a tourist passing by and taking pictures, but we got the chance to step into his house, see his family and understand their values and their traditions.”

In order to keep his family, friends and supporters updated, Walsh created a WordPress blog, titled Your Brain On Altitude, updating the site throughout his trip.

He noted that two elementary school classes had followed his journey through the blog. They sent him questions along the way, which he answered regularly.

“One of the teachers highlighted the fact that for a lot of these kids, [it helped them] see science not as boring or a stereotypical nerdy pursuit but as this exciting endeavor.”

Walsh will be integrating his research from the trek into the KNP125 class he’s co-teaching in the fall.

“When you can bring in real world experiences, and demonstrate physiology in circumstances that people might actually understand ... there’s a lot of meaningful learning that can take place,” he said. 

 

Information for the interactive element compiled by Valentino Muiruri

Corrections

In the interactive element, the date of point 5, the climb to Tengboche, was May 8-9, not May 9-10. 

The Journal regrets the error.

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