Student unlocks secrets to blood flow in brain

Research excellence fuels global quest to understand disease links

Taking his research around the globe —and winning scholarly recognition—
is becoming routine for Chris Willie, an accomplished PhD student in the Human Kinetics program at UBC’s Okanagan campus.

Willie was recently announced as a winner of the Vanier Scholarship in Interdisciplinary Studies, among the most prestigious graduate awards in Canada. It is only the latest in a series of distinctions.

In 2011 he has also earned an Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Predoctoral Fellowship, the Killam-Donald N. Byers Prize, an Alexander Graham Bell Graduate Scholarship (CGS), and a Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement (CGS-MSFSS) national award. He has also been published in one of the top clinical journals, Hypertension, among other scholarly publications.

Willie, of Kelowna, B.C., credits his professors and the high standard of research being conducted at UBC’s Okanagan campus for his success.

“The faculty bring knowledge to the Okanagan that is without parallel,” says Willie. “UBC has the best human kinetics lab facility that I have worked in. We have tremendous access to resources like a hypoxic chamber, ultrasound machines, human blood clamping and the means to quantify nervous regulation of blood pressure, brain blood flow and breathing. We have all of this, along with a calibre of researchers that are among the best in the world. I don’t know if people in the Okanagan realize what is going on, right here within their community; the research is on par with any leading institution globally.”

Under the supervision of Phil Ainslie, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair with the School of Health and Exercise Science, Willie pursues research that examines the mechanics that control blood flow to the brain and how it may vary in different clinical populations and environmental conditions.

A significant number of Canadians die from, or live with, diseases and conditions that are caused by improper blood flow to the brain. Stroke alone is the third-leading cause of death in Canada. Kelowna, Willie says, is an ideal living lab to study the effects of blood flow in an aging population, a growing demographic and research area where he expects to focus much of his future research.

Willie’s investigations challenge many long-held assumptions about the roles that arteries play in controlling blood pressure and blood flow to the human brain.

Willie studied Biomedical Science at the O’Brien Centre for the Bachelor of Health Sciences at the University of Calgary for his undergraduate degree before moving to his current research, where collaborative projects have taken him to institutions in Britain; Japan; Perth, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand; and to Duke University in the U.S.

An upcoming research venture next spring will take Willie to the mountains of Nepal to study the effects of high altitudes on blood flow to the brain.

“There is so much we don’t understand about the brain vasculature. Particularly with respect to exercise, high altitude and with disease, our comprehension of the brain is half a century behind other regions of the body. The skull is a tough nut to crack,” he says.

Willie is the principal author of three major studies, one of which appeared in the clinical journal Hypertension. Titled Neuromechanical features of the cardiac baroreflex following exercise, the study provides insights into the mechanisms that control blood pressure in healthy people before and after exercising.

The other two high-impact research papers provide the first detailed review and guidelines in the use of ultrasound for the assessment of human brain blood flow, and novel information about blood delivery to the brain during exercise.

As for the future, Willie sees education as part of his quest to search, investigate and uncover answers in the name of science and wellbeing of humankind.

“I don’t necessarily look at my PhD as an end goal, I look at myself as a researcher and scientist,” Willie says.

“Within the next five years I aim to pursue answers to the questions I have right now. But these questions evolve, so after that, I imagine that I will continue on in science, in research, in academia.”

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UBC Reports | Vol. 57 | No. 12 | Dec. 1, 2011

UBC PhD student Chris Willie recently was awarded the distinction of a Killam Predoctoral Scholarship. Darren Handschuh Photograph

UBC PhD student Chris Willie recently was awarded the distinction of a Killam Predoctoral Scholarship. Darren Handschuh Photograph

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“Our comprehension of the brain is half a century behind other regions of the body.”

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