The APEX 5 Expedition: The Peak of Altitude Research

Q: What do a laboratory at 4700m, 34 Edinburgh students, and a bulldozer have in common? 

A: The APEX 5 high altitude medical research expedition, which gave its student volunteers and organisers a unique and unforgettable learning experience.

Since 2001, Apex (Altitude Physiology Expeditions) has been performing important research and given hundreds of University of Edinburgh students a rewarding international learning experience.  In summer 2017, APEX 5 – the latest Apex expedition – made the Bolivian Andes its research laboratory and home for a week.  Our research at 4,700m – 3.5 times the height of Ben Nevis – investigated the effects of hypoxia (low oxygen) on the immune system, blood clotting, cognitive function, and the eye and vision.  We also evaluated whether personality affects perception of mountain sickness symptoms.

The APEX 5 team in La Paz
The APEX 5 team in La Paz

Investigating hypoxia in healthy volunteers at high altitude (where oxygen levels are low) not only furthers our knowledge about how people adapt to altitude but also informs us about the role of hypoxia in sea level conditions characterised by a shortage of oxygen. Our work on the effects of hypoxia on the immune system aims to benefit hypoxic patients in intensive care and with conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, whilst our research on the impact of hypoxia on cognition and vision has direct relevance to pilots, climbers, and other altitude visitors.

For its six medical student organisers, APEX 5 provided a steep learning curve.  Four of us, myself included, were inspired to organise our own expedition following our experience as student volunteers on the APEX 4 expedition – working in a pop-up laboratory in breath-taking surroundings with new friends has that effect!  We worked hard to make our dream a reality for over two years, with the support of the Apex charity committee.  We had a great deal of autonomy: designing the research studies, seeking ethical approval, organising logistics (both for baseline testing in Edinburgh and our research and stay in Bolivia) and securing grant funding exceeding £20,000.  We also successfully relocated our research at very short notice when in Bolivia to ensure rapid descent was possible. Descent is the best treatment for severe altitude sickness, and road access to our planned location was blocked by snow/ice, and immovable by the bulldozer we hired!

Jason Young, APEX 5 organiser, despairs at the defeated bulldozer
Jason Young, APEX 5 organiser, despairs at the defeated bulldozer

Organising and executing a research expedition has given us a wealth of knowledge and honed a number of skills, including project management, problem solving, writing research ethics and grant applications, and practical research and teaching skills.  Above all, we learnt the power of good teamwork.  We look forward to completing data analysis and sharing our research findings via presentations and publications.

Personally, my communication (in both English and español) and leadership skills flourished – effective delegation of tasks amongst the organising team was essential.  I enjoyed the challenge of balancing the expedition’s leadership with our multifaceted research testing, ensuring a safe and rewarding experience was had by all.

We aimed to spark a scientific interest amongst our volunteers: every volunteer was offered a half day ‘lab internship’, where they could hone their practical skills and ask questions about the research projects.  Rebecca Trimble, APEX 5 volunteer, comments:

“Being able to see each individual stage of the research production line was illuminating – it made all the theory come to life. And at 4,700m in a hut in the middle of the Bolivian Andes… No mean feat whatsoever!”

Alongside our research, we explored the stunning surroundings including its nearby glacier and lakes.  Post-expedition, we had the opportunity to explore Bolivia and neighbouring countries.  Travel is one of the best teachers, and APEX 5 united Edinburgh students in a culturally diverse and beautiful part of the world.

Not just research… APEX 5 explores Huayna Potosi
Not just research… APEX 5 explores Huayna Potosi

We are delighted that a number of our volunteers are now planning APEX 6; the student-led future of Apex is secure.

To find out more about Apex Expeditions and student-led learning, see the following links:

APEX 5 Expedition blog

APEX 5 Expedition website

Student-led learning: a Head of School’s perspective

PE4C Investigation and Student-Led Research Conference

Christopher Graham

Christopher Graham led the APEX 5 expedition in his penultimate year of medical school, supported by a stellar team of organisers.  Christopher enjoyed the challenges of research in the extremes, negotiating in Spanish, and learning the meaning of “expect the unexpected”…  He’s grateful for the fantastic APEX 5 volunteers, expert supervisors, and immense support received.  He looks forward to his next adventure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *