Meet Vanier Scholar Oliver Wearing
Oliver Wearing, a McMaster PhD student who is studying environmental physiology, is a recipient of a 2018 Vanier Graduate Scholarship.
BY Erica Balch
September 7, 2018
McMaster PhD student and recipient of the Vanier Graduate Scholarship, Oliver Wearing has always been fascinated by how animals interact with their environment.
Originally from the UK, Wearing completed his undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Manchester, and since 2015, has been working in McMaster researcher Graham Scott’s lab, studying how the unique physiology of high altitude animals helps them to thrive in their harsh, inhospitable habitats.
Wearing talks about his path to McMaster, his deep interest in water sustainability, and why deer mice are some of the toughest animals on the planet:
On his research:
My research project looks at how high altitude hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) has shaped the evolution of deer mice. This mammal is unique in that it lives from below sea level in Death Valley up to altitudes of 4300 metres in the Rocky Mountains. At that high elevation, there is ~50% less oxygen than at sea level, meaning these mice have to survive with roughly half the amount of oxygen we are used to.
Complicating that challenge, these little guys are also living in a cold environment! To keep warm, they need to use more oxygen even though they don’t have that much of it. They’ve evolved a suite of physiological adaptations to deal with that problem.
My research focuses on the circulatory system in these mice, which includes the blood, but also the cardiovascular system. I’m interested in how their heart is working, how blood-flow to different organs is changing due to the vasculature and its responses to hypoxia. I’m trying to understand that oxygen transport pathway and its role in moving oxygen from outside to the tissues that need it.
On what we can learn from deer mice:
One thing that’s so interesting with deer mice is they have this unique altitudinal range, which allows us to compare high-altitude populations with low-altitude populations within the same species. Essentially, we’re interested in seeing how the mice could have evolved the mechanisms that stop them from getting pulmonary edema, hypertension, chronic mountain sickness – all the sicknesses that humans when we visit/inhabit high altitude, but the mice don’t. We’re interested in seeing how they did it.
On his path to Mac:
I started off in Zoology at the University of Manchester, UK, which is close to where I grew up and has a great zoology program with a lot of field opportunities. In my first year, I was lucky enough to go to South Africa to do an animal behaviour course, which was awesome! I was also a research placement student for a year in Texas working with turtles and that’s what really set my heart on research and, in particular, environmental physiology.
I heard of Graham Scott’s work for the first time while I was in Texas. It’s a relatively small research area and Graham is very well known for having a high-impact and productive research program.
Working in the Scott Labhas been great because we not only have a breadth of organisms that we work on, like ducks, mice and fish, but we’re also asking a variety of questions. Not just about oxygen limitation, but also about things like pharmaceutical contamination of local water systems. It’s refreshing to have that kind of versatility in the lab and to have the opportunity to learn such a wide diversity of techniques.
On promoting water sustainability:
While at McMaster, I’ve been heavily involved with the McMaster Water Network Student Chapter. I’ve had an interest in environmental work for a long time, and Hamilton is an amazing place to look at sustainability. Not only due to its geography and history, but it seems that McMaster and the local community both have such enthusiasm and expertise related to water.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve really been trying to get a dialogue going between the people in Hamilton and people at McMaster. We’ve organized some great talks and started some really interesting projects, including one at Merit Brewing Company. We were approached by the owners of Merit and teamed up to develop a small internship program where students from McMaster with a breadth of expertise would go into the brewery and assess how well they’re doing in terms of water efficiency and try to come up with innovative solutions to reducing water waste. It was great! I think the brewery was pleased the project got such positive attention and there was a lot of enthusiasm from students. It was a lot of fun!
On what he likes best about being in the lab:
I just love messing around with things! One of the great things about a physiology lab is that oftentimes you find yourself having to develop your own solutions to problem, which sometimes means building your own equipment or developing a new technique. You’re always wondering, will this work?! Then it does and it’s great! A lot of times you think of science as monotonous and while that can be true when you have to do one process lots of times, you also get to do a lot of different processes, so there’s diversity… and it’s fun, especially when it works!
Outside the lab:
I play the piano. I think one of the reasons I enjoy playing is that I’m using a different side of my brain. I spend a lot of time thinking about science and doing science and I just need an outlet. Playing piano exercises that other side, the more creative side. It’s really relaxing. I guess it’s a little like therapy! I love doing it.
The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships are the Government of Canada’s most prestigious awards for doctoral students. The program provides $50,000 per year for up to three years to students who demonstrate academic excellence, research potential and leadership ability. Up to 166 awards are distributed each year by three federal granting agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). This year, 10 McMaster students received Vanier scholarships.