Research News

PhD candidate’s altitude-acclimation research attracts attention

Courtney Wheelock poses in front of the hypo/hyperbaric chamber.

Exercise and Nutrition Sciences PhD candidate Courtney Wheelock at the Center for Research and Education in Special Environment's hyper/hypobaric chamber in Sherman Annex. The chamber is designed to study both altitude and depth.


Published October 29, 2021

“There are so many different avenues in research that it’s mind-blowing. For example, I keep learning about researchers in just one biomarker I’m studying. Human performance is a broad interest of mine, but narrow enough that I can follow where it leads me. ”
Courtney Wheelock, PhD candidate
Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences

Getting your body used to a high altitude takes time. Or does it? That’s the question Courtney Wheelock is trying to answer.

Wheelock, a third-year PhD student in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences (ENS), is looking at whether heat acclimation, which takes less time than altitude acclimation, might be a good substitute if someone needs to quickly get used to a high altitude.

She calls it “cross acclimation” between a hot environment and hyperbaric (high altitude) exposure. The theory, she says, “is that heat acclimation might improve conditioning in high altitudes.” She is studying the idea at a specific height of 8,000 feet above sea level, roughly the altitude of Afghanistan. Once you get above 2,500 feet, she explains, physical performance declines in people who aren’t acclimated.

Typically, people can spend years getting acclimated, but what if someone is in the military or is an elite athlete and needs to travel somewhere and get acclimated quickly? Getting used to a hotter environment — heat acclimation — is “faster and cheaper, and could be a reasonable substitute for people who don’t have the opportunity to altitude acclimate,” Wheelock says.

Her work has been attracting attention. The Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences recently selected her as the recipient of its 2021 Zale Parry Scholarship. According to David Hostler, professor and ENS chair — and Wheelock’s primary mentor — she was the first UB student to be in the running for the award.

And earlier this year, she received a fellowship award from the American College of Sports Medicine for her study “Heat and Hypoxic Cross Acclimation for Improved Performance at Altitude.”

Wheelock, who has been diving for 11 years, initially became interested in dive physiology by way of underwater science.

“I actually considered a lot of avenues,” she says. “I shadowed sport medicine doctors and athletic trainers, then helped in a research lab.” She decided on her current research path once she examined the existing research and found the resources in ENS that would enable her to explore a range of environments. She can explore what happens in hot or cold environments in the department’s environmental chamber, and can simulate environments of different heights in the hypobaric chamber.

“Several cross acclimations are possible,” she explains, “but the resources here make it possible to step into a newer kind of research.”

Right now, Wheelock is collecting data for her dissertation, which will consist of one large study with independent sub aims. Her main aim is to determine if heat acclimation improves physical performance at high altitudes. A sub aim might be determining the mechanisms of exactly how performance is improved.

“We’ll be taking blood samples to measure biomarkers, and we’ll compare those, as well,” she explains. “I’m sure we’ll find surprises in data that we’ll have to go back and analyze.”

In addition to Hostler, Wheelock is working on the study with ENS Assistant Professor Riana Pryor.

“The department is super collaborative, and I can get feedback from professors with a wide variety of backgrounds,” Wheelock says. Interestingly, one of her favorite courses was grant writing and getting funded, which she says most undergraduate or even master’s students don’t learn about.

Wheelock says she’s always been interested in knowing how the body works in order to adapt and push past what it might be capable of. Whether it’s elite athletes, divers, emergency responders or others, she says she’s fascinated with how the human body works, “especially in environments we’re not supposed to be in.”

“There are so many different avenues in research that it’s mind-blowing,” she says. “For example, I keep learning about researchers in just one biomarker I’m studying. Human performance is a broad interest of mine, but narrow enough that I can follow where it leads me.”